Reflections on the role of environmental psychology in transitions towards sustainability

Author: Kathleen Klaniecki

 Earlier this month, I attended a wonderful conference on environmental psychology (ICEP 2017) in A Coruña, Spain.  This year’s theme was Theories of Change in Sustainability Transitions and Social Innovation.  As someone who straddles multiple disciplines in her research (as many of us do), this conference left me reflecting on current interactions between environmental psychology and sustainability science and how researchers in these disciplines can further collaborative for sustainability transformation.


In the Leverage Points project, we’ve had many conversations about shallow vs. deep leverage points: interventions at shallow leverage points often lead to little systemic change whereas interventions at deep leverage points have more transformational potential. But when talking about the role of environmental psychology in sustainability transformation, should we acknowledge and encourage further research on seemingly shallow leverage points?

At first glance, environmental psychology interventions are primarily focused on understanding and describing shallow leverage points. The abstract book of ICEP 2017 (and other conferences of this nature) is filled with research on car purchasing decisions, household food waste, energy-efficient appliance adoption, and public perceptions of climate change. These studies provide fascinating insights into specific behaviors and attitudes, which may lead to more targeted conservation campaigns, better marketing of ‘green’ products, and policy incentives that address accurate barriers to change. That being said, on their own these studies contribute little to our understanding of how to deeply transform systems, as they are often place-specific, small-scale interventions.

However, I’ve been thinking that this type of research is crucial for broadening our understanding of deep leverage points. One deep leverage point that is discussed in our work is interventions that target underpinning values, norms, goals, and worldviews of a system. Deeply changing unsustainable systems thus requires research on these constructs, which are the cornerstones of environmental psychology research. Only when we are equipped with a multiple-level understanding of each dimensions of each construct can they effectively be levered for sustainability transformation. And who are the best people to do that? Environmental psychologists!

I see the interplay of these two disciplines as a bit of a feedback loop. As an example, let’s look at car use. Environmental psychologists uncover the underpinning values, norms and attitudes that shape car-use behaviors. Used as a shallow leverage point, these findings could contribute to the creation of subsidies or incentives to buy electric vehicles. We know these subsides play a role in prompting behavioral change and reducing the environmental impact of some users transportation behaviors, but these types of interventions support the status quo and do little to change overarching unsustainable transportation systems. However, if sustainability scientists collaborate with environmental psychologists to uncover trends and patterns across communities and societies this data can play a crucial role in identifying deep leverage points. In this way, research on shallow leverage points can inform and guide us towards more effective and efficient systemic changes towards sustainability.

In the end, I think our research will be enhanced by recognizing contributions from research on shallow leverage points. Only through this research will we gather enough information on psychological constructs for them to be levered for sustainable change. Here are a few ways that I think we can get there:

  • Strive for more representative samples. This was a key takeaway message from ICEP 2017. We need to stop relying on convenience samples for our research, because these often support our own viewpoints and fall to include a diversity of viewpoints. More representative samples will reveal more about underlying attitudes and values and barriers to behavioral change.
  • Increase scope of research. Since our environmental problems require greater behavioral shifts than simply changing a light bulb, we should continue to support and encourage research that takes a more systemic perspective for understanding how norms, values, and beliefs affect environmental behaviors.
  • Strive for greater interdisciplinary collaboration. My reflections on this conference and the reflections from colleagues who have attended other conferences this year speaks to the need to further advocate, strive, and push interdisciplinary collaboration. This highlights the need to further integrate leverage points thinking across disciplines.