Promoting sustainable behaviour, motivating behaviour change

Numerous strategies have emerged from social science research into how to motivate people and groups to adopt environmentally sustainability behaviours, how to inspire sustainability, how to help people overcome barriers, and how to encourage people to take effective action on climate change.  The use of incentives, feedback, rewards, knowledge about stages of change, norms and modelling have all been researched in the context of promoting sustainable behaviours.

Much research has been done into strategies to help people overcome barriers and engage properly with climate mitigation and adaptation. Examples include:

  • Making climate change here, now and for sure to counter people’s tendencies to discount things that are distant in time and place.
  • Talking about the 97% scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human behaviour.
  • Using social norms to show that ‘it’s normal to be green’.
  • Using local and trusted communicators that are ‘like me’ to talk about climate change.
  • Activating intrinsic values (‘bigger-than-self’ values), that are more related to pro-environmental action (and in fact greater expressions of concern across a wide range of bigger-than-self problems).
  • Building people’s identity as someone who cares about the environment and takes action.
  • Relating climate change solutions to sources of happiness and wellbeing so that people are more inclined to participate and come up with creative strategies.
  • Using stories about positive change to leave people feeling hopeful and positive and showing the way to create a more just, equitable and healthy world.
  • Framing individuals’ responses to climate change as an informed choice between desirable and catastrophic outcomes. 


Chai, A., Bradley, G., Lo, A., & Reser, J. (2015) What time to adapt? The role of discretionary time in sustaining the climate change value-action gap. Ecological Economics, 116, 95-107.

Clayton, S. (2009). Promoting sustainable behavior. In S. Clayton & M. Myers (Eds.), Conservation psychology: Understanding and promoting human care for nature (pp. 143–161). Boston: Blackwell.

Community based social marketing. Website resources. Available at:

Crompton, T. (2008). Weathercocks and Signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads. Godalming, UK. Available at:

Gardner, G. T., & Stern, P. C. (2008). The short-list: The most effective actions US households can take to curb climate change. Environment: Science and Policy for a Sustainable Environment, 50, 5, 12–24. Article available at:

Gifford, R. (2015).  The road to climate hell.  New Scientist, July, 2015.

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 290-302.

Harre, N. (2011). Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability. Book available at:

InPsych (2010). Understanding the psychological barriers to climate change. By Burke, S.

Kaplan, R., & Basu, A. (2015). Fostering Reasonableness: Supportive Environments for Bringing Out Our Best.  Michigan. Michigan Publishing.

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing (3rd Edition). Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility & Friends of the Earth (2010). The Role of Psychology in Environmental Campaigning and Activism. Summary report of a workshop, Washington, D.C.

Teaching psychology for sustainability. This site provides a resource to help instructors begin integrating psychology and environmental issues in their courses.

Social norms, modelling

Knowledge about effective communication comes from psychological research on diverse topics including social norms, conservation psychology, persuasion and (social) marketing.

Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting normative messages to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 105–109.

Winter, P.L., Sagarin, B.J., Rhoads, K., Barrett, D.W., Cialdini, R.B. (2000). Choosing to encourage or discourage: Perceived effectiveness of prescriptive and proscriptive messages. Environmental Management, 2(6): 588-594.

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472–482.