Evolutionary Psychology and Sustainability

Academic research isn’t always immediately applicable. This is not a bad thing, part of the aim of academic research is to wander into new territory and often this isn’t directly applicable today. It is interesting, however, when academics try and bring their perspectives to more practical problems. Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú, and Mark van Vugt apply an evolutionary psychology lens to sustainable decision making. While I’m not going to cite anything but anecdotal evidence I can’t help but think that we are all making lots of decisions that aren’t sustainable but could be changed pretty easily if the messaging where clearer. Griskevicius and his colleagues suggest ways in which those interested in promoting sustainability can work with the ways that human beings think. For example, the authors suggest that people have evolved to “…disregard problems they cannot see or feel” (Griskevicius, Cantú and van Vugt, 2012, page 118). Evolution wouldn’t have selected for those who worried about things they couldn’t see because, until recently, humans had quite limited abilities to influence such things. Instead of bemoaning that people aren’t thinking about what they cannot see or feel those trying to initiate change can try to ensure that they: “Create visible links between behavior and its immediate environmental consequences” (page 118). Essentially this means give people wins that they can see.

Furthermore rather than complaining that people go along with social norms — people don’t bother recycling if no one else is — highlight the existence of positive norms — people who do recycle. It is easier to persuade people to do the right thing because everyone else is than ask them to start a new movement.

I’d agree with their overall suggestion. “We contend that for influence strategies to be optimally effective, they must work with, rather than against, evolved tendencies.” (page 125) Working with the way people think is likely to be more effective than fighting against the tide.

Read: Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú, and Mark van Vugt (2012) The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 31(1), pages 115-128.