Lessons from the literature: Psychology, wellbeing and the environment

A contribution by the social issues team
Saving the planet

Over the last 12 months we have seen an enormous increase in our exposure to, and understanding of, environmental problems. The threats and challenges of climate change are rapidly becoming a feature of conversations amongst friends and work colleagues. The Prime Minister might call them barbeque stoppers.

Such conversations are among the most important ways in which we can contribute to, and participate in, solutions for environmental problems. These exchanges represent one mechanism through which change can spread through society – psychologists refer to this phenomenon as social diffusion.

Social diffusion is the process by which new ideas permeate and are taken up by a population. It is happening when people talk amongst themselves about changes they are making, and introduce these ideas to others. The take-up of new environmental ideas and behaviours, for example, occurs frequently as a result of friends, family members or colleagues introducing them to us. Indeed, as students of social psychology well know, studies into persuasion consistently find that person-to-person communication is the best method, followed by TV, radio, and finally printed material. Whilst the media might prompt us to think about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, it is the subsequent conversations that we have about the articles and books we read, and films we see, that often lead us to implementing changes like switching to green energy, installing low energy light globes, and commuting to work by bike. Norms develop as people interact and work out guidelines for their pro-environmental behaviour; social diffusion occurs as people pass information to one another about their experiences with new activities.

One of the features of diffusion theory is that people’s decisions to take up new ideas depend heavily on the decisions of those around them (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971). According to Rogers (1995), after about 25-30 per cent of a population have adopted an innovation, relatively rapid adoption by most of the remaining members occurs.

Individuals, therefore, have tremendous potential to become social change agents, and our influence can be used to promote pro-environmental behaviours. We can all spread information about ways of saving water, reducing our reliance on coal, gas and oil, and promoting other sustainable behaviours through the informal conversations that we have with the people around us. The more we share our concerns with others, and let them know about the personal changes we are making, the more we invite others to reflect and try out changes themselves. (For more ideas, look out for the coming APS Tip Sheet on Communicating with Others about Environmental Issues!)

Not only are many people making personal changes in their energy and water use, but we also know that many are initiating projects in their local communities, schools and workplaces to encourage others to reduce their environmental impact. Unfortunately, social diffusion has been greatly underutilised in larger scale attempts to promote sustainable behaviour. For anyone initiating programs, it can be worth seeking out and building in opportunities to benefit from the psychological research into strategies to promote social diffusion (for examples, see http://www.cbsm.com). Useful strategies might include advertising examples of people who have committed to carry out a new behaviour, such as recycling grey water, by publishing their names in an organisation’s newsletter or local newspaper, or giving them stickers to place on their letterboxes. Publicising names both increases the commitment of those whose names are advertised, and provides an opportunity for those who recognise someone's name to approach that person and ask about the activity, thereby fostering social diffusion.

Another useful strategy for promoting social diffusion is deliberately finding well-respected, well-known members of the community to communicate the message. According to Rogers (1995), much of the population does not have the interest or capability to remain abreast of the most recent information about new ideas, so they trust the decisions made by opinion leaders. Also, much of the population just wants to stay in line with the rest of society, so a large section of a social system follows suit with the opinion leaders. All the better if some are high profile celebrities like Peter Garrett or Ian Chappell! This is the fabled tipping point, where the rate of adoption rapidly increases.


Rogers, E.M., & Shoemaker, F.F. (1971). Communication of Innovations (2nd ed.). New York: Free Press.

Rogers, E.M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.


February's tip for a sustainable future

Reduce water consumption

By modelling pro-environmental behaviour change, psychologists can lead the way for others

In many parts of Australia, drought has highlighted the preciousness of water and reinforced the need for us to make serious changes to how we use it. If drier-than-usual conditions persist in this country, Australians will have to adjust to a vastly reduced water quota per person. We live in the driest continent on earth but have the highest per capita consumption of water. There is plenty of room for improvement.

At home, water can be conserved in two ways – by using less, and by re-using grey water. The main water usage inside the home comes from showering, flushing toilets and washing clothes.

Tips to save water:

  • Take shorter showers
  • ‘Turn on, turn off, soap up, rinse off’
  • Catch warm-up water in a bucket for gardens
  • Install water efficient showerheads (AAA or higher)
  • Use half-flush option for toilets
  • Place sealed bottle filled with water inside cistern
  • Install waterless toilets
  • Fix water leaks immediately
  • Purchase water efficient washing machines
  • Try to wash clothes (and dishes) only with full loads
  • Use economy cycle and ‘save suds’ functions if available
  • Rinse dishes in a basin of water
  • Install a grey water system that provides a suitable level of treatment and meets local regulations –
    grey water can be used to flush toilets, water gardens and even to wash clothes. By using ‘waste’ water as a resource rather than a waste product you can greatly reduce your water consumption.

    Up to 60 per cent of home water use is used outside but much of it is wasted.

Tips to reduce water use outdoors:

  • Mulch and compost gardens
  • Install tanks and rain barrels in your garden to collect run-off and rain water
  • Reduce lawn area (lawns use up to 90 per cent of water)
  • Plant natives and low or medium water plants

These tips, and more, are available from www.greenhouse.gov.au/yourhome/technical/fs20.htm