Want People To Live More Sustainably? Narrow Their Options!

By: Nick Cooney

When encouraging the public to live more sustainably, environmental activists will often present long lists of things a person can do to reduce their impact on the planet. A Google search of “how to go green” brings up, on the first page of results, “10 Ways to Go Green and Save Green,” “40 Tips to Go Green at Home for Earth Day,” and “365 Ways to Go Green.” Presenting a long list of ways to live sustainably seems useful:  the more options we give people, the more likely they are to find an option that suits them. Right?

Wrong. When a farmer is trying to herd animals from a larger area into a smaller one, they’ll often create a chute that starts wide and gets narrower and narrower. Similarly, when we are encouraging people to act more sustainably it is helpful to narrow their options. Offering people too many choices makes them more likely to choose nothing at all.

A study of eight hundred thousand workers found that the number of retirement funds offered by an employer was inversely related to the number of workers that signed up for any retirement fund. The more retirement fund options they were given, the less likely workers were to choose any fund.  In another study, college student participants were presented with two hypothetical choices for what they could do that evening:  study in the library as they had planned to do, or attend a lecture by an author they admired who was in town for one night only. Only twenty-one percent chose to study. In the second round of this study, other student participants were given three options:  the library option, the author option and also the option to watch a foreign film they had wanted to see. This time, a full forty percent of participants decided to stay and study as they had initially planned. Giving students two good alternatives to studying made them less likely to choose either alternative. Similarly, market research has found the more flavors and varieties of a product that shoppers are presented with, the less likely they are to buy any one of those products.

Sure, there is a time and place for discussing the many ways that sustainability can and should intersect with our daily routines. Environmentalists who are trying to reduce their carbon footprint even further crave detailed information and new ideas on how to go even greener. But when we are communicating with the general public, there is a fine line between stimulating people to action and paralyzing them with too many options to choose from. Our communications need to simplify the issue and call for clear, specific action. Focusing on just one or two things a person can do to reduce their impact on the environment will likely create more behavior change than a long list of ideas.

Nick Cooney is the author of Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, http://www.ChangeOfHeartBook.com

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