Lessons from the literature: Psychology, wellbeing and the environment

A contribution by the social issues team
Responding to climate change: a social dilemma

The drought and fierce summer bushfires have been devastating for many, but they have at least had the effect of raising people's awareness of the threat of climate change. Consequently, many people have reconsidered how they use energy and resources, and started engaging in significant conservation behaviours.

But as seasons change, the heat dissipates, the bushfire threat diminishes for now, and some rain falls, how do we keep our attention on the urgent need to continue reducing energy use and conserving resources? Do we just slip back into enjoying the good life, without a thought for the environment?

A significant challenge in promoting sustainable behaviour is getting people to engage in pro-environmental behaviour when there are no immediate consequences, positive or negative, to reinforce changes already being made. People generally feel powerless to influence, or less personally responsible to act, at the global level than at the continental, country, town or individual level - yet the global level is where environmental problems are perceived as being more serious (Uzell, 2000).

Psychologists use the term 'social dilemma' to describe a situation where acting in self-interest is likely to result in a less-than-optimal situation for the greater whole. A typical social dilemma is 'the tragedy of the commons' dilemma (Hardin, 1968), where individuals will take more than their fair share of a limited resource, fail to limit consumption and inevitably destroy what they use in common, so long as they each get the full benefit of their individual use of the commons but only have to pay a small percentage of the costs. Further, even if each person understands that their actions are contributing to the ongoing destruction of the resource, each is powerless to stop the process via unilateral individual action (e.g., if I reduce consumption, that leaves more for others to consume!) (Gardner & Stern, 2002).

This concept applies to a great many modern environmental problems (e.g., overfishing, the release of greenhouse gases through burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, overgrazing, soil degradation). Social dilemmas constitute a serious problem, as individual rational behaviour (i.e., acting without restraint to maximise personal short-term gain) can cause long-term harm to the environment, others and ultimately oneself (if Venice sinks, everything goes down, not just individual properties). The entire community is better off if all or most individuals cooperate rather than act selfishly (Dawes, 1980). How, then, can communities across the world ensure that common resources like water, fish, energy and land are used in sustainable ways, to the long-term benefit of all?

Psychologists working within a self-interest model (where people are seen as driven by short-term self-interest regardless of social/environmental consequences) argue for solutions that make it worth people's while to conserve, either by increasing central control over resources (e.g., direct management by government agency) or by individualisation (creation of rules for resource use that increase personal rewards associated with conservation, e.g., privatisation, metering, sanctioning and taxation) (Van Vugt, 2002).

An alternative 'communitarian' perspective suggests that people can cooperate and share resources well provided that the people feel attached to their community, and derive a sense of identity and belonging. Users may then take a longer-term perspective on their relationships with others, and cooperate rather than compete for scarce resources (see Ostrom, 1990, for examples of communities successfully managing common resources). Increasing communication or sense of affiliation with the community increases the likelihood of cooperation. The effect of group identity is in fact so strong that it can affect cooperation rates even in the absence of communication. Many Indigenous cultural practices have been based on a clear understanding of the collective nature of survival.

How people characterise their identities, therefore, can play a part in how sustainable behaviours are fostered and maintained. According to Uzzell (2004), long-term environmental and sustainability strategies have to be located in the relationships between people within their communities, and between these people and their environment on every scale from local to global. Strengthening people's connection with their local communities becomes important (and in general, small, stable, homogenous communities with a dense network of social relationships perform better in managing local resources than larger communities), but so too is educating for global identity. What does it mean to you to be a citizen of the world?

Other solutions to social dilemma problems address the perceived lack of responsibility and control of the problems and the solutions, and a lack of trust in the cooperation of others. As someone famously observed, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible". Getting people to personally participate in solving environmental problems can increase feelings of control and agency, which in turn has a positive impact on their self-efficacy and trust (Gatersleben & Uzzell, 2001). Reminding ourselves that there is a lot that we can personally do, and starting to take action to manage the environment better, can help us move from despair and hopelessness to a sense of empowerment.

See the latest APS Tipsheet Climate change - What you can do on the APS website.


Gardner, G.T., & Stern, P.C. (2002). Environmental problems and human behavior. (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Gatersleben, B. & Uzzell, D. (2001) Social Dilemmas and Changing Travel Behaviour: Becoming the Public and Private Citizen. In: Clive L. Spash & Anders Biel (eds). Social Psychology and Economics in Environmental Research (SPEER). Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Uzell, D. (2000). The psycho-spatial dimension to global environmental problems. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20(4), 307-318.

Van Vugt, M. (2002). Central, Individual, or Collective Control? Social Dilemma Strategies for Natural Resource Management. American Behavioral Scientist, 45, 783-800.

This edition's tip for a sustainable future

"Writing to a politician about climate change can save the world" - Tim Flannery

Perceived self efficacy can be a powerful antidote to the apathy, alienation, paralysis and despair that are common individual responses to global-scale problems like the environmental crisis. To counter the sense that acting individually or locally to save global resources is futile, especially if others just take up what we save ('why should we be the mugs?'), people can tap into a wider pool of collective action at structural levels. A very effective way of bringing about widespread environmental change is to garner the support of governments, world leaders, and big business.

Collective efforts can exert considerable influence. Many groups have started up world-wide encouraging ordinary citizens to make their concerns about climate change known to decision-makers. Even individual letters, emails and phone calls from community members carry impact. There are many examples of public opinion directly influencing government policies, because politicians know that for every person who took time to write, many more have the same opinion. One letter or phone call about an issue is said to equate to 100 concerned constituents, and one visit equates to 1,000.

You can write to State and Federal politicians, or world leaders, as well as corporations and businesses (even exercise any shareholder rights you have), to regularly ask questions about climate change policies, or register concern about related issues.

Psychologists made a tremendous effort to lobby government about Medicare in 2006. Let's mobilise our energy for the planet in 2007!

  • Make a commitment to send regular messages to government representatives and others with decision-making influence.
    • Keep your message short. Ask just one or two questions. Do not make speeches or offer opinions.
    • Request a reply.
    • Remain polite.
  • If you don't have time to write a full letter/email, just write one sentence letting them know your concerns about climate change and asking them to respond.
  • Join organisations like GetUp (http://www.getup.org.au/), an independent internet-based organisation that lobbies politicians about a range of issues, including climate change, or Citizens' Climate Campaign (climatez@aapt.net.au), a citizen-based letter writing organisation that prompts and updates members about issues.

For details of your local Federal MP, go to:

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



APS National Office goes green
We are very pleased to announce that the APS National Office now purchases 100 per cent green power, and that all of the air travel undertaken by the APS Executive Director and President will now be carbon neutral. Throughout the coming months the APS will continue to work towards a greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This will be achieved through a combination of energy reduction measures and offsetting of unavoidable carbon emissions through participation in carbon trading schemes.