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Language manipulation could be key to increasing pro-environmental behaviours

By Krista Baliko Posted: April 21, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Katherine Arbuthnott, Campion College conservation psychologist.
Dr. Katherine Arbuthnott, Campion College conservation psychologist. Photo - External Relations.

Every April 22 we mark a global environmental initiative – Earth Day. This is a time to not only reflect upon our own environmental practices, but also to act.

For instance, we know it’s better for our health and the environment if we walk or bike instead of drive. We save money, energy and resources when we reduce, reuse, and recycle. Shutting off the tap when we brush our teeth conserves water.

These are examples of pro-environmental behaviours, yet many people choose not to take these steps toward sustainability.

But what if there was a way to influence people’s behaviors, simply by changing our language? This type of manipulation could be the key to getting people to act in more environmentally friendly ways.

“Research shows that we really hate losing things,” says Campion College conservation psychologist, Dr. Katherine Arbuthnott. “A loss is worth much more to us than an equal amount of gain. We can use this information to increase the likelihood that people will use pro-environmental behaviours.”

 “During a drought we can ask citizens to conserve water by emphasizing gains – that there will be enough water for everyone to meet essential needs – or we could highlight the losses – we won’t be allowed to water our lawns. I’ve found when emphasizing potential environmental losses rather than gains, people would be more likely to act pro-environmentally.”

The same pertains to our own health and well-being, says Arbuthnott.

“We know that pollution in the air and water causes health to decline, and that insect borne diseases increase when we heat up the atmosphere. But simply talking about acting sustainably because it’s good for the environment generates less uptake than if we discuss outcomes as personal health losses.”

Manipulating language in this way works, but Arbuthnott warns against overwhelming people, leading them to feel helpless about the environment.

“It’s important to communicate about losses that will occur if pro-environmental behaviours are not embraced, but don’t paint a picture of the apocalypse,” she cautions.

Arbuthnott adds while conservation psychologists can’t fix environmental problems directly, they can suggest how people will best be inclined to hear information, why and how they will resist pro-environmental behaviours, and suggest approaches to solutions that might see more people adopting them.

“We can provide critical insight into human behaviour that may be crucial to putting effective climate change solutions into action.”

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