Cover of Kids Behaving Badly

Environmental Psychologist

For the past 20 years I have been working as an environmental psychologist at Community Change, a company I founded with my co-director Rob Curnow. When I first graduated, though, I worked as a university research assistant and then as a counsellor for the Royal Australian Navy at HMAS Cerberus in Victoria. I was keen to extend my clinical skills further so completed my clinical masters at La Trobe.

My first clinical psych job was at Frankston Hospice Service where I worked with terminally ill people, their families and carers. It was evident right away that it was the bereaved who were in most need of support so colleagues and I started the Peninsula Bereavement Support Project. This community project became the model for the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement where I was its founding director. After that I started to help a colleague Rob Curnow who was receiving many requests to do environmental psychology work. When working with communities, whether it was to reduce the social isolation of the bereaved, or trying to change people’s behaviour to help our environment, it was clear that the same set of skills was involved. I also found that the research skills I gained early in my career were getting a massive new workout, as were the interviewing and group facilitation skills from my clinical practice. Globally, since we are all involved in mitigating and adapting to climate change, working in community and environmental psychology feels like the most important work I could be doing in my professional life.

At Community Change we work with all sorts of projects aiming to reduce household water and energy use and keep public places clean by preventing litter. We work with many different clients including federal, state and local governments, not for profits and industry.  We help them work out exactly which behaviours to change for maximum impact and then develop, test and improve programs and evaluate them. Wherever possible we do direct measurement of behaviour because what people say they do is of course not always what they actually do!

Some of our projects …

  • Helping a government department investigate barriers and drivers underlying household water use behaviours, to inform programs to reduce water use
  • Conducting state-wide monitoring of progress towards zero waste in Victoria using our Clean Communities Assessment Tool (CCAT)
  • Extending the work of a community food program to improve access to affordable, culturally appropriate and sustainable food
  • Assisting a power company to apply our behaviour change framework to support environmental values and improve the uptake of green energy in the community
  • Helping build staff capacity to evaluate a long-term water conservation program in schools
  • Helping design and evaluate the effects of waste management and recycling systems on people’s behaviour at events like the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games.
  • Evaluating a government and industry behaviour change campaign to reduce butt litter after anti-smoking legislation was introduced in licensed premises in Victoria.

We work hard to involve clients in every stage of a project.  In one large water saving project we started by getting senior managers to monitor their own water use behaviour at home and in the office.  This kind of process really helps clients see that their program isn’t something they “do to people out there” but something we are all trying to do together for better or worse! Needless to say we include ourselves in this process and have to come clean about our own successes and failures in trying to work and live sustainably. Often a simple exercise like this helps quickly identify structural barriers to change that must be addressed if positive change is going to occur.

We’ve also become internationally known as experts in litter prevention and have developed an observational approach to measure ‘disposal behaviour’ (that is, putting stuff in the bin, taking it home, or littering) in hundreds of public places. Our Clean Communities Assessment Tool has now been licensed to local government councils and other consultants throughout Australia.  It assesses how public places like malls, parks, beaches, markets, public buildings and transport stops perform on features that influence littering behaviour. It moves from a ‘blaming’ model that discourages effective action to a problem solving approach on how to make improvements to reduce littering and make public places more community friendly. 

Psychologists have a lot to contribute to the future of our planet, especially in helping to build cooperation and share expertise with other disciplines trying to do the same thing. No matter what your professional interests are, you will find that your psychology training lends itself to this work.  

Community Change is a recipient of an Australian Evaluation Society Excellence in Evaluation Award for our work in behavioural measurement.