Social Psychology

A contribution by Dr. Verena Vierrath, Anke Hofmann and David Scholz

Individual Factors

Problem Awareness

… refers to the perception that our environment is threatened (Matthies, 2005). The awareness of the problem can be raised if we provide information on the extent of the climate crisis. Although there is a correlation between the knowledge about the climate crisis and environmentally conscious behavior, it is rather low (Kazdin, 2009). That also explains why pure information campaigns only rarely lead to humans behaving more environmentally conscious (Steg & Vlek, 2009). Therefore, knowledge transfer on it’s own is not enough!


… describes the conviction that I can perform a certain environmentally friendly behavior with the help of my own abilities. Studies indicate that self-efficacy is more important for environmentally friendly behavior than knowledge about this topic (Hines, Hungerford, & Tomera, 1987). Self-efficacy can be enhanced by pointing out ways in which we can behave environmentally conscious.

Feeling of Responsibility

 … describes the feeling that the responsibility for climate protection lies within me. The feeling of responsibility can be enhanced by appealing to fundamental values such as justice or equality. Careful: Often, direct appeals to our responsibility create feelings of guilt. These feelings of guilt, though, can lead to coping strategies (e.g. indifference, denial) which stand in the way of environmentally conscious behavior (Homburg, Stolberg, & Wagner, 2007; Lertzman, 2008).

Cognitive Dissonance

… arises when our behavior is in conflict with our values and goals. Cognitive dissonance is perceived as an unpleasant state (Festinger, 1957). We can reduce this state by trying to adapt our behavior to our values (‘I am no longer flying‘). Cognitive dissonance is considered to be a very effective tool to enhance environmental behavior (Osbaldiston & Schott, 2012). Careful: If we don’t see any possibility to adapt our behavior to our values, we will probably not change our behavior, but instead adapt our values (‘the protection of the environment is not very important to me‘).

Intention-Behavior Gap

This gap describes why – despite a great change of intentions, e.g. wanting to show a more environmentally conscious behavior – that exact behavior is not occurring (see Sheeran & Webb, 2016). First of all, it must be noted that a change of intentions is generally only quite weakly related to corresponding actions (Webb & Sheeran, 2006). According to Sheeran and Webb (2016), this may be due to the fact that the goal of the intention itself was poorly chosen (too difficult, too vague, externally imposed, timely unstable). But even the best intentions can fail due to self-regulatory obstacles, i. e. due to the concrete implementation in the situation (forgetting the intention in everyday life, missing relevant situations, negative thoughts about the behavior; Sheeran & Webb, 2016). Self-observation or so-called if-then plans (see also implementation intentions) have proven to be effective methods to better convert intentions into behavior (Grimmer & Miles, 2017; Sheeran & Webb, 2016). It must of course also be noted that external factors are crucial for the occurence of behavior, e.g. how much control one has over the behavior at all or how appropriate the behavior is for the current context (Grimmer & Miles, 2017).

Implementation Intentions

Implementation intentions are a simple, but very effective method (Grimmer & Miles, 2017; Sheeran & Webb, 2016) whereby intentions result in the desired behavior. They describe fixed if-then rules, i. e. at what time which behavior is supposed to be shown. For this purpose, one should think about in which situations the desired behavior can be shown and what could prevent one from doing so. A fixed if-then rule is established for each situation and each obstacle, e.g. situation: ‘If I buy a cup of coffee, I will have it put into my own cup instead of taking a to-go paper-cup with me’. Obstacle: ‘If they do not want to put the coffee in my cup, I will go to another store’. This method noticeably supports the accessibility of the intended behavior in a specific situation and thus ensures that the desired behavior is shown more frequently (Sheeran & Webb, 2016).

Social Factors

Role Model Behavior

If other people behave in an environmentally friendly way, the probability of us showing the same behavior increases (Clayton & Myers, 2009). If we ourselves set an example of a sustainable lifestyle or even just talk about it, the environment-friendly behavior of others will be supported (Steg & Vlek, 2009). Careful: This should by no means have a missionary character, otherwise it can lead to defiant reactions (reactance) from the other person.

The described following constructs attempt to explain the failure to help in situations that require proactive behavior to avert an emergency or danger. In general, the lack of (behavior) skills as well as the fear of negative (social) consequences increasingly lead to the occurrence of the following phenomena:

Bystander Effect

This effect describes the behavior of people who happen to be near (‘bystander’) a situation where someone needs help. The more people are present, the lower the probability that someone will become active of one’s own accord, and e.g. helps. This is explained by the

Diffusion of Responsibility

herd of sheep on green grass field during daytime
Picture by Lisa Kohnen

The presence of several people in a help situation leads to the fact that the responsibility for providing help is ‘divided’ and thus the extent of personal responsibility decreases. The larger the group, the less personal responsibility is felt for becoming active. That can lead to the help situation being misjudged. This is explained by the

Pluralistic Ignorance

If the number of people present, but not acting (witnesses, spectators), is larger, the possibility that the situation is not considered an emergency or a situation in which urgent action is required increases as well. Each person observes the others and tries to get clues as to what needs to be done. If nobody acts, the probability is high that one will not act either – even if this contradicts one’s own values.

Addressing individuals and asking for their support or help can interrupt these described phenomena. Applied to environment and climate protection, this could mean addressing concrete topics to people and considering possible courses of actions with them (solution orientation), which also enhance self-efficacy (my actions achieve something and are successful) and thus increase the possibility that the useful or positively experienced behavior will be shown again.


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