Hacking Psychology for the Good of the Planet
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
5 Simple Tricks to Inspire Eco-Friendly Action
Despite our urgent environmental crisis, it can be hard to get other people on board with eco-friendly living—like, really hard.
Have you ever brought up the merits of plastic-free packaging to… *crickets*?
Or maybe you point out the carbon cost of next-day delivery. And suddenly – suspiciously – everyone around you “hears someone calling” from the other room.
It’s disheartening. Even worse than feeling like that person, you’re missing out on the chance to have meaningful conversations with the people around you.
You know that getting one person involved, who gets another person involved, who gets another person involved, is exactly how everyone everywhere gets suited up to fight for a sustainable future. Even the Instagram influencers! (Especially them? 2020 is weird.)
But, it can be hard to connect. How do you get people as pumped on the planet as you are?
Option one: you could tie them up and force them to read this harrowing New Yorker article about climate change. But there are laws against that. (Reading, good. Forceful restraint, bad.)
Option two: put on your sustainable superhero pants! Use these simple, powerful, psychological tools to get people on board with your mission.
A disclaimer: you could use these tools to manipulate people. But I've got a better idea.
Instead, use them to inspire positive change in those around you. Use them to become more compassionate, encouraging, and engaged with everyone you meet.
Sounds more exciting, right?
Tip #1: Show Empathy
Breaking news: plastic bags are bad for the planet. And six-pack rings kill sea turtles.
I’m kidding, it’s no secret that hyper-consumption has serious consequences. We just live in a world that makes it quicker, cheaper, and more convenient to choose less ethical options.
Plus, we’re stressed. We’re overworked. We’re in debt. And you know what helps? Getting elbow deep in a bag of processed cheese puffs – in PEACE! (Until the next *urgent* email ping.)
You get it. Of course you do.
BUT, it’s painfully easy to come off as a know-it-all-do-gooder when you care about the planet. Ask any of my family members.
The problem? When we feel judged, we put up walls. The solution? Empathy.
Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, is one of the most valuable tools in your toolkit.
Relate to their pain. Then, help solve it.
Here’s how to use empathy to encourage eco-friendly choices:
"It can be so hard to [buy sustainable clothing] because [it’s so much more expensive]. What are your thoughts on [shopping second-hand]?"
"Sometimes I [get takeout] because [I’m so busy] too. [Bringing my own container] really helps with the waste."
The trick? Don’t judge people who aren’t making the same choices as you. Stop and consider how hard it can be. How you’re not perfect, either. Oh, and listen. (Listen! Listen! Listen!)
Bottom line: it’s hard out here. We’re in it together.
Tip #2: Associate Taking Action with Pleasant Emotions
Traditionally, environmental advocacy campaigns focus on the guilt we’ll feel if we don’t take action. But they may want to rethink their approach:
Recent studies suggest we’re more likely to do things we think will make us feel good. Researchers have found that anticipating pride - rather than guilt - is better at motivating people to take environmental action.
It’s simple: we like feeling good, we dislike feeling bad. And reminding people it feels good to take care of the planet? Ain't nothing wrong with that.
Here’s how to use pleasant associations to encourage eco-friendly choices:
Ex 1: Using eco-friendly products – Supporting the development of sustainable alternatives fills you with hope for the future.
Ex 2: Choosing a low-emission flight – Decreasing your carbon footprint brings you joy without any extra effort.
Ex 3: Cooking with locally-raised food – Supporting your community gives you a sense of pride (and a yummy, lower-impact meal!)
Tip # 3: Appeal to Values
This one takes a trick out of the politician's handbook. (Just remember, we’ve got our sustainability superhero pants on, here!) Appeal to the things that your audience cares about.
Maybe this one seems obvious, but think about the last time someone asked you to donate to a cause that you didn’t feel invested in.
Did you donate? Did you care?
Science shows that we’re more likely to comply with requests that reflect our values, how we see ourselves, and what we’d like out of our futures.
Getting someone interested in sustainability can be as easy as taking the time to figure out what matters to them. (Again: Listen! Listen! Listen!) This helps you align environmentalism with their beliefs.
Here’s how to appeal to values to encourage eco-friendly choices:
Ex Value 1: Family—Talk about their kids or grandkids. Get them to open up about the type world they hope to leave behind for them. Do they hope for drinkable water, clean air, national parks that are still, well... there?
Ex Value 2: Health—Ask them how they feel about chemicals in their kitchen, or if they’ve seen any of the documentaries that suggest veganism has some mega-health benefits. (I hear you can lift 600lbs after just watching “Game Changer!”)
Ex Value 3: Morality—For the philosophers in the house. Or, you know, that friend that likes to get deep. For instance, if future generations inherit the Earth, but have no control over our actions, aren’t we obligated to do everything we can to ensure a safe and sustainable future?
Values. Boy, do humans have a lot of them. Go wild!
Tip #4: Find Out How You Can Help
When it feels like everything we do is harming someone or something somewhere, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s hard to know how to take action. Imagine how it feels when you’re just starting. Making eco-friendly choices can be a head-spinner.
Enter: our superhero sidekick – reciprocity!
Reciprocity is the idea that helping someone makes them want to help you. And, when you apply it to sustainability, it can kick off a dizzying spiral of Earth-friendly action.
Here’s how to trigger reciprocity and encourage eco-friendly choices:
Ex 1: Offer Resources—Media overload can keep a sustainability-curious person from action. Lend out a favorite book. Suggest a documentary. Turn them on to a totally non-obnoxious Vlogger. You know, whatever they’re into.
Ex 2: Lend a Hand—Offer to help set up a home compost or raised garden bed. Ask if you can pick anything up at the bulk store. Going green can be exhausting. An extra set of hands sure helps.
Ex 3: Give Green—Replacing a $2 roll of plastic wrap with cute, yet costly beeswax paper isn’t an option for everyone. Special occasions are an awesome opportunity to gift a new eco-friendly favorite. Did I mention beeswax paper is adorable?
Tip # 5: Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement rewards behavior you’d like to see repeated. We all know the concept: you want your dog to come when you call, so you feed him a treat. Maybe you encourage your kids to do their chores with a sticker reward.
*Note: I can’t believe I have to say this but YOUR LOVED ONES ARE NOT DOGS. I highly advise against trying to make them salivate and think about bamboo cutlery every time you ring a bell.
That said, making someone feel appreciated goes a long way.
Here’s how to use positive reinforcement to encourage eco-friendly choices:
Ex 1: Small rewards—Maybe your housemate is in a hurry, but she still rinses her yogurt container before recycling. Pour her some coffee for the road, and acknowledge it’s pretty cool she did that.
Ex 2: Words of affirmation—Who doesn’t love to be told they’re awesome? If you see someone’s swapped single-use for reusable, compliment it! If a loved one shares a petition online or writes an elected official, thank them for the resources – and take action, too!
Ex 3: Fun activities—Maybe your dad has taken an interest in locally-sourced food. Take him to that super-sweet farm-to-table restaurant in town. Everyone wins when parmesan dusted cauliflower gets involved. Well, except the cauliflower, if you think about it...
It’s not too hard to stay genuine. A simple “I appreciate what you’re doing…” goes a long way.
A last word about your new superpowers...
First off, don’t be manipulative. It’s not nice.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way: these tips aren’t actually superpowers—surprise! They’re just tools for connection.
The people you around you are your real superpowers.
Our environmental crisis is dire. We need everybody on board.
We need more teachers, researchers, politicians, public figures, moms, teens, students, cashiers, ballet dancers, dental hygienists, rock climbers, opera singers. Heck, we need more INSTAGRAM INFLUENCERS. Did I mention them already? (2020… strange times).
We need so many people brewing up their own special brand of impact. And how do we get them all on board? You guessed it: CONNECTION! Hug it out. High-five. Bring treats.
Meet your people where they’re at. Examine yourself, you perfectly messy flesh-ball. Get a little interpersonal communication dirt beneath your fingernails. It looks good on you.
Got another trick in your back pocket? Well then, your sustainable superhero pants are probably more comfortable than mine. But it’s fine. I’m not even jealous!
Just share that sweet tip in the comments below.