09/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Environmental Psychology: the Choice Is Yours

If you choose to compost your food scraps, bring a reusable bag to the grocery store, or bike to work, your friends may have psyched you into it. That's right, increasing evidence shows that psychological factors -- like peer pressure and fear of loss -- play a significant role in how environmentally friendly our choices are.

When I was researching a piece on the topic earlier this year, Christie Manning, a psychologist at Minnesota's Macalester College, told me that, "psychology is a very logical piece of the puzzle." Why? Because psychology helps us "understand the drivers of human behavior that are creating the problems and uncover what types of behavior are going to solve the problems."

Some recent studies show that peer pressure leads to changes in behavior. "That's the power of social norms," said Jianguo "Jack" Liu of Michigan State University in a press release. He recently published a study on the topic in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's like recycling. If you see your neighbors doing it, you're more likely to do it." Encouraging your friends and setting an example is also helpful, says Manning.

One study published in the August issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: General showed that people make decisions about the environment just like they make decisions about money: They want fewer gains now compared to larger gains later, a concept called delay discounting. "We'd rather have a bird in hand than two in the bush," says coauthor Elke Weber, a psychology professor at Columbia University.

The finding is encouraging, she says, because researchers and policy makers can use what we know about how people make financial decision and apply that to the environment.

One way to convince people that it's better to have 35 days of clean air in the future instead of 21 days of clean air now, for example, is to present the better option first, says Weber. Whatever we consider first carries more weight, and we often think of the status quo before anything else. "If you are a policy maker who thinks that it's wise to change the status quo, get people to think about the future first before they think of what they currently have. That might make them more likely to embrace change," she says.

Fear of losing what we currently have, or could have in the future, is also a driving force. But some psychologists, like Elise Amel of the University of St. Thomas, caution against scaring people into making choices that benefit the environment. "The trick is to try to convey a sense of urgency without basically putting somebody into paralysis," she says. It's best to give people an idea of how they can help when discussing scary or depressing scenarios, like sea level rise.

One criticism of these studies is that they can be used to influence people, but Weber disagrees. "People say you're manipulating them, but there's no way to present [options] in an unbiased way," she says. "There's no neutral way to present choice."