Attitude Change Working Group


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The Role of Psychology in Achieving Attitude and Behavior Change to Mitigate the Effects of Climate Change: An Overview 

As global temperatures rise, a historic shift in the public’s awareness of our interdependence and of our relationship to the environment is taking place.  The need for a re-orientation in attitudes and behavior for decision makers in every sector of society, and for all 6.6 billion of us, in our communities, has become increasingly apparent. “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.” (UN General Assembly, 1992). UNESCO’s Constitution states: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”  This appears to be also true in the case of responding to climate change. As climate change is largely the result of  human action, conservation must start with a re-orientation of attitudes and behaviors in order to achieve sustainability.  Sustainable development has been defined as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987).  This is echoed by the UN’s Millennium Development Goal Number 7, “Ensure Environmental Sustainability,” which includes as Target 9 of the MDGs: “Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources.”  

In this overview chapter on the Role of Psychology in Achieving Attitude and Behavior Change to Mitigate the Effects of Climate Change, before delving into the two components of mitigation – attitude change and behavior change – and the part they can play in the development of a culture of environmental care and responsibility, let us first outline some of the myriad activities which psychology and the other social sciences can contribute to the multidisciplinary dialogue in addressing climate change, such as:


  • Sharing research results;

  • Proposing empirically based policies and programs;  

  • Conducting evaluation research to determine what works;    

  • Serving as catalysts in formulating community-based responses to the challenge of addressing current urgent day-to-day needs without compromising the future;

  •  Facilitating education related to skills and attitudes compatible with sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

  • Helping to shift attention from the “here and now” to the “then and there”; and

  • Assisting us to translate the idea of “think globally, act locally” into action.


As early as a decade ago, psychologists have studied the antecedents of pro-environmental attitudes and behavior; they have conducted research on energy and water conservation, recycling, composting, the use of environmentally responsible shopping, and the use of alternative transportation, among other variables. Pioneering work on environmentally relevant decision making, and the related environmental and moral dilemmas, has been initiated.  Environmental degradation is often cited as a stellar example of a “commons dilemma” – “a situation where a collective cost or risk is incurred……..through the combined negative external effects of various individuals who act (relatively) independently from one another.” (Vlek, 2000). Hypotheses regarding the importance of commitment, social support, the nature of the message, and many other variables have been proposed (McKenzie-Mohr and Oskamp, 1995; Vlek and Steg, 2007).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that “Many impacts [of climate change] can be reduced, delayed or avoided by mitigation.” (IPCC, 2007). As mitigation of climate change is a problem that can be addressed effectively only through co-operative effort on a large scale, psychologists can share lessons learned in the areas of interdependence, cooperation and conflict resolution, leadership, organizational change, and other related fields.  They can facilitate education related to skills and attitudes relevant to conservation and can help communities formulate their unique responses.   


Now to the part played by Attitude Change and Behavior Change.

First, what is an Attitude? 

The term “attitude” refers to the predisposition to respond favorably or unfavorably to a person, object or event. Attitudes are assumed to direct behavior in one of two ways: they can trigger consistent behavior immediately and directly with little thought, or they can lead to thoughts that result in intentions to act. (Myers, 2008) 

Intentions are the strongest predictors of behaviors. A person’s intention becomes the basis for deciding how and where one will work, live, engage in recreation, vote, etc. Behavior will result from intention which developed from attitude.  An attitude about the importance of mitigating climate change may also lead to the conscious development of a set of behaviors.  Each potential behavior could be evaluated as to its effect on climate change. 


The Three Components of Attitude 

It has been suggested that we hold particular attitudes because those attitudes serve a function for us.  The functions have been categorized as: instrumental, knowledge, value-expressive and ego defensive.  (Katz and Kahn, 1978)

Instrumental Function:  We hold favorable attitudes toward those things that are instrumental in bringing us reward, satisfaction and take us closer to our goals.  For example, currently many of the necessities and pleasures of our lives are associated with the use of fossil fuel.  To change from energy overuse to conservation may mean giving up pleasurable but unsustainable lifestyles.  To achieve this change would involve understanding that there is more to gain from conservation than from overuse.  This requires a new definition of what constitutes “quality of life”: conservation mush becme the instrumental means of striving for a sustainable quality of life.

Knowledge Function:  Attitudes that serve a knowledge function help to make our complex world easier to understand; they also make it easier to reach decisions about new events and ideas we encounter.

Value-Expressive Function:  Some attitudes are expressions of our values. We develop our values from our families, religion, education, work, and culture. Some cultures have a deeper respect for and connection to nature than others. It is difficult to change attitudes that derive from long-held values and beliefs; however, many dedicated individuals and organizations are currently striving to change these values.

Ego-Defensive Function:  Some attitudes are related to one’s sense of personal value; they serve to protect our self-identity and are particularly resistant to change. Defensive resistance to changing an attitude occurs when a person identifies so closely with their attitude that to have it challenged is threatening to his/her value as a person.


Closely related to “attitudes” are of course values. In relation to the environment, some researchers have found it useful to classify values into three categories: egoistic values, focused on oneself and self-oriented goals; altruistic values, reflecting concern for other people, including family, friends, community, humanity; and biospheric values, reflecting concern for the well-being of all living things, including plants, trees, and animals (Stern, 2000).

Behaving Counter to Attitudes

When people engage in behavior that goes counter to their attitudes, the attitudes will gradually change to conform to the behavior.  In most cases, the attitudes will persist as long as the behavior remains, especially if the new behavior becomes rewarding.  For example, we are forced to obey traffic rules or we will be fined. We cannot pass stop signs, drive on the wrong side of the road, etc. However, even when a policeman is not visible, we continue to obey the laws because we realize it prevents chaos and accidents.  Our attitudes have changed as a result of the change in behavior and the realization that the behavior is beneficial. 

It is possible to act in ways to change behavior directly without first changing attitudes. Changing behavior before changing attitudes works effectively when there is some external motivation for the behavioral change. This external motivation can range from coercion through persuasion. Once the motivator is present, the desired behavior must be modeled for the individual. The person copies the behavior and is rewarded in some desirable way. The reinforcing nature of the behavior will increase the probability that the behavior will persist. Psychologists have developed procedures for controlling and adjusting motivation, modeling and reinforcing techniques to promote the continuation of the desired behavior. In the present context, “The critical challenge is to help people get so personally committed to environmental protection that they would use self-management techniques to increase their pro-environment behavior.” (Geller, 2000).

Behavior change can be brought about incrementally, in small steps toward the desired goal, or by transformation, a sudden inspirational shift.  We need to support both incremental changes as well as fostering the more dramatic transformational change – the kind of change that is difficult to achieve without internalizing a superordinate goal.

The Concept of the Superordinate Goal

A superordinate goal is defined as a goal that must be achieved in order for the planet and its peoples to survive, but which cannot be achieved by any one individual or group; it can only be achieved by cooperation and coordination – indeed, partnership – among many groups (Sherif, 1961). Many people recognize that the enormity and complexity of climate change will demand cooperation among individuals, communities, regions, and nations.  Psychological research on cooperation and conflict resolution, with its emphasis on interdependence, can help to foster behaviors that will mitigate the effects of climate change; we may be initially annoyed at conservation regulations and required changes in behavior – until we recognize that they may save our lives, the lives of generations to come, and the life of our planet. “We should view the achievement of sustainable living patterns as a superordinate goal – a war against the common enemy of an uninhabitable world.” (Oskamp, 2000).

Involvement in the Required Changes:  Developing Networks 

Social scientists have demonstrated that the broader the involvement in a decision-making process, the greater the likelihood of participation in the decisions and the greater the likelihood of carrying out those decisions. Oskamp (2000) champions the “Use of carefully organized group activity, which can help to build what  Bandura (2000) has termed a sense of collective efficacy.” The optimal formation of groups involve members who have a common interest and concern for climate change, along with other members who have other interests and are involved with other constituencies; these people will return to their other affiliations and spread the word about mitigating climate change to them.  The idea is to spread a series of networks that can influence an ever wider cross-section of people about the issue and the need to change attitudes and behavior. 

In Closing:

The following words were spoken regarding world peace, but resonate well regarding the mitigation of the effects of climate change:

“We have no more urgent task……..So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

John F. Kennedy, “Peace Speech” – Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963.


“In the end, we only conserve what we love; we will only love what we understand; we will only understand what we are taught.”

Baba Dioum, Senegalese Poet.