Great, provocative question by sustainability scientists Alicia Harley and William C. Clark on Twitter:
Good question. Virtually all the groups working on sustainability acknowledge that we have been slow to grapple with actors, agency and power differentials. But now that we are trying what has research shown us that we didn’t already know? https://t.co/nhBLVjBoY1
— William C. Clark (@william_c_clark) February 13, 2019
Arun Agrawal’s succinct list of answers is an excellent starting point:
Five I can think of:
Preferences are not fixed
“Empty” talk/communication changes behavior away from rat. choice predictions
Norm activation alters choice
Individual-focused extrinsic incentives crowd out pro-social motivations and behaviors
Behavior does not reveal intent https://t.co/sK505VBlyQ
— Arun Agrawal (@gotonura) February 14, 2019
I would perhaps also add the corollary to the last point, that therefore “intent” does not necessarily manifest in behavior, particularly when looking at only a small section of time. This is important because to me, a key insight of institutional theory is that assessing or changing people’s beliefs does not necessarily tell you their behavior, or how/if their behavior will change. Beliefs can be part of behavior change, and certainly are related to overall behavior, but in some cases behavior changes beliefs. That is, to minimize cognitive disonance when our actions don’t match our beliefs, sometimes we change our beliefs instead to allow for the actions we’ve already taken, thus alleviating us of the disonance!*
And I suppose lastly, I might add the importance of the thorough rethinking of the “deficit model” of education (where people with “high knowledge”, like scientists, simply transfer/communicate information to people with a “knowledge deficit”). Many alternatives, critiques, and refinements have been offered, and it’s increasingly recognized that simple one-way “education” (e.g. “I, the expert, tell you the right things”) is an ineffective and otherwise faulty way to approach affecting people’s beliefs and behaviors.
What’s your favorite thing that this kind of research has shown us in sustainability science?
*NB: It might be equally or more fair to say that “identity changes beliefs”, e.g., identifying as a Democrat or Republican then can lead us to change our beliefs to fit in better with our partisan identification. However, there is evidence of behavior causing alterations in beliefs rather more directly. See e.g. “The Experience of Cognitive Dissonance Can Create Attitude Change” and “We Reduce Dissonance by Decreasing Dissonant or by Increasing Consonant Cognitions” a bit less than halfway down this page of Principles of Social Psychology. There is more recent research verifying and expanding on these findings, but I don’t have time to look them up now. However, Ellis and Stimson’s Ideology in America is required reading for looking at some parallel elements of partisanship and beliefs.