Closing the climate attitude-behaviour gap: the impact of positive nudging and connectedness

Dissemination by Ellen Barrett

We all know we should be doing more to address climate change, but what can we do to overcome the barriers that prevent us from taking action? According to a 2022 survey, more than 80% of UK residents are concerned about climate change. In addition, 85% believe individual action can reduce climate change, and over half are not disincentivised by other people’s lack of action. So, in the majority, we are aware of climate change, we care about it, we believe we are capable of addressing it, and we are willing to take responsibility for our own actions to do so. Despite this, there exists an attitude-behaviour gap: a disconnect between what people believe and intend to do and what they actually do. Without closing this gap, we will remain stagnant whilst global temperatures rise, hope dwindles, and future generations perish.

So why does this gap exist? Let’s start by reflecting on how you felt when you read the words “hope dwindles, and future generations perish”. I’m guessing nothing positive. But I don’t have to guess. Recent research has shown time after time after time, that the use of fear in climate messaging can be counterproductive and paralysing. As many say, optimism is an act of rebellion so it becomes easier to cut off connection with climate information. But I propose that this is not the answer. In fact, my research suggests that what significantly contributes to constructive sustainable behavioural change (SBC) is exactly that: connection.

My research aimed to provide insights into what might contribute to closing the attitude-behaviour gap. First, I randomly assigned participants into a variation group and a control group and sent them the same survey based on the general ecological behaviour scale, that measured their sustainable behaviour. The two groups were to redo this survey 2 weeks later. However, only the variation group were part of the intervention that examined two factors I believed could contribute to the closing of the climate attitude-behaviour gap: connection and positive nudging.

Connection here refers to the sense of belonging and community that individuals can experience in a group. Positivity nudging is a little more complex. Positive nudging is a term within behavioural economics that refers to contextual changes that can guide people towards making certain choices – in this case more sustainable ones. The nudges used on the variation group were focused on:

  1. Social norms – to motivate individuals to be part of a majority who are trying to be more sustainable.
  2. Informational nudges – to ensure all understood what sustainable behaviour looks like.
  3. Goal-setting – to help participants better align their attitudes to desired behaviour.

These nudges work well with a group that is connected, as with connection comes group-behaviour. This leads to social desirability, as people want to be similar to and liked by the group, and behavioural mimicry, as people copy the majority’s behaviour. If, as it was for this group, pro-environmental behaviour is the norm, each member of the group is likely to want to replicate this behaviour themselves.

In order to measure the effect of connection and nudges, the variation group were added to a WhatsApp group chat where they received prompts that would encourage conversation, connection and sustainable behaviour displayed as the norm. With consideration of bias and positionality, messages from the researcher were limited. One week in, participants in the variation group were also able to take part in a call which provided information on impactful actions individuals can make (informational nudging) as well as a workshop on implementation intentions. Implementation intentions is a type of goal-setting technique that uses if-then planning. Similar to habit-staking or SMART goals, you attach a new desired behaviour to a location and time. Examples from participants include:

  • “I will reduce the number of meat dishes I include when I plan my meals for the week every Sunday”
  • “I will dry my clothes outside, when I would normally use the dryer”
  • “I will put my reusable coffee mug by my door every evening, so when I go to leave I remember to take it with me”

The survey findings were noteworthy:

  1. Over double the number of participants in the variation group had a positive average score increase, compared to the control group. 
  2. 9/34 questions measuring SBC showed a statistically significant difference in improvement between the control and variation groups.
  3. The topics for these 9 questions matched with the participant’s implementation intentions and the main discussion points in the group chat.
  4. The 5 participants who had the highest rates of SBC in the variation group all attributed their change to the same two factors: (1) “being part of a group/community” and (2) “learning about sustainability from others in the group”.

These factors can be observed in comparison with the control group with the following word clouds, presenting the participant’s experience of change between the 2 surveys.

With recognition that the sample size may not be representative of the population as a whole, these findings were, nevertheless, highly valuable. Not only did some of the results hold statistical significance, but all the participants with the highest rates of SBC self-reported the impacts of the two techniques the intervention used. In short, “knowing there is a community of people with the same common goal makes it more motivating, and clearer that if we work together we can create change”.

The key takeaway is that a precise type of connection – not the connection we get from the news that scares us and immobilises us, but the connection that inspires us from the communities that surround us – is powerful in motivating tangible and meaningful change. This is how we can overcome the climate attitude-behaviour gap and work towards a more sustainable future.

We all have a role to play in addressing the climate crisis, beyond awareness. But perhaps it starts with actions as simple as talking to one another, fostering connection, and learning from one another, making the change we can where we can.

Header image by Shane Rounce via Unsplash

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