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Literature review

Transitioning to low carbon living: a review of environmental psychology and associated literature

Sustainable living Conservation Psychology

This literature review is a project document produced for the CRC Low Carbon Living project “Transformation to Low Carbon Living: Social psychology of low carbon behavioural practice". The purpose of this project is twofold. First, it will develop an integrative understanding of how psychological factors interact with contextual factors present at multiple levels of analysis to reinforce cultures of high or low carbon behaviour. Second, it will produce a tool to identify underlying motivational readiness to switch from high to low carbon behaviours, which can be used when designing and targeting interventions.

The low carbon behaviours examined in the Transformation to Low Carbon Living project are a subset of pro-environmental behaviours, that is, behaviours that are positive for the environment. To support the project, this literature review represents an assessment of and reflection on this broader field of pro-environmental research and consequently, when reviewing literature the term “pro-environmental” is often used. However the examples used almost exclusively refer to low carbon behaviours and when discussing the implications of the literature for this project the authors speak in terms of low carbon behaviour.

As discussed in the introduction, the low carbon behaviours focused on in this review are private behaviours in the home and personal travel that can limit greenhouse gas emissions. These include home modifications to increase energy efficiency (e.g. double glazed windows) and consistent behavioural choices that limit how much energy is used (e.g. switching off lights and using public transport or a bicycle for private travel). Such private, discretionary behaviours are an integral part of a societal culture of low carbon living. However a range of factors must be considered to understand and facilitate when and how people will transition to this kind of lifestyle.

Part 1 outlines the Reasoned Action Approach (RAA), which then serves as a framework that the authors use to guide our assessment of the wide range of factors examined in environmental psychological research. The key factors involved in the theory are attitudes, perceived norms, perceived control, and actual control. The RAA is the dominant way of understanding behaviour change in both social and environmental psychology, and it provides a parsimonious basis for identifying the different factors that affect behavioural intention. However there are many factors (psychological and nonpsychological) that complement the components of the RAA. Part 2 examines a range of psychological factors (e.g. values, goals) that influence attitudes and perceived norms. It also notes that within a context there may be conflicting factors motivating different behaviours (e.g. positive attitude towards the environment, negative attitude towards spending more than absolutely necessary on appliances). This is part of the reason why it is possible for people to have pro-environmental attitudes but still not enact pro-environmental behaviours.

Part 3 addresses how context can reinforce behavioural intentions that are not pro-environmental. It begins by briefly commenting on the nature of context (personal, social, institutional and physical features) and several ways that context can affect behaviour are outlined. Key aspects of the way that contexts shape behaviour are then examined in some detail. First, the dynamic relationships between the choices people make in different contexts is explored in terms of “spill over” effects, which can either prompt people to generalise pro-environmental behaviour from one context to another, or to reduce pro-environmentalism in one context when new efforts are being made in another. Second, the authors present an analysis of the way that habitual behaviour automates choices in response to contextual cues, thereby limiting people’s perceived and actual control. Third, the authors review a selection of literature that covers multiple ways in which context can be difficult to modify. This literature covers several different aspects of context, including infrastructure, resources required to modify infrastructure and social relationships grounded in particular contexts (e.g. families and the family home).

Part 3 ends with a consideration of two theoretical approaches that complement the RAA via their focus on context and the insights they provide for the level of actual control people have over their behaviour at different times. Social practice theory is presented as an approach that provides rich insight into how and why patterns of behaviour persist in society. It identifies that routines of behaviour occur with parallel shared social meanings and involve the use of material equipment and infrastructure that support and reinforce the routine. Together these elements make up a practice that is reproduced as an uncontested default and reinforced by multiple other practices that all bundle together to produce the structure of society. While this perspective does not lend itself to clear models of behaviour change, it provides an invaluable tool for understanding the nature of a person's engagement with a context. This is particularly valuable when designing interventions to aid transitions from disinterest to low carbon intentions and then low carbon behaviour. To understand how these shifts can occur at a cultural level, a selectionist approach to cultural dynamics is then presented. It describes a general framework for considering cultural dynamics involving the emergence, establishment and transformation of behavioural practices in society. In closing comments for this part the authors identify our agenda to integrate social practice theory and cultural dynamics with the RAA and related psychological concepts to produce a coherent and comprehensive theoretical framework for transitions to low carbon living.

Part 4 concludes with notes on intervention strategies. It identifies the many different strategies that interventions may use (e.g. information, social influence and structural changes) and reports literature showing that using a combination of different strategies is the best approach to take. It also notes that interventions must be tailored for the particular population and behaviour(s) being targeted. Finally, Part 4 considers general insights for behaviour change taken from social practice theory and a general selectionist approach to cultural dynamics. The authors note that as well as integration with psychological theory, empirical research is needed to develop these insights into specific models of low carbon behaviour change.

The review closes with conclusions about directions for future research. The appropriateness of the RAA is affirmed as a starting point, and goals, social identity and social influence are identified as particularly valuable psychological factors that should also be considered. It is also concluded that social practice approaches should be taken to understand the way that people engage with the context, with cultural dynamics being used to understand processes at a macro level. This is expected to be fruitful in terms of understanding how much actual control people have over acting on their behavioural intentions and identifying nexus for interventions to initiate a change from high to low carbon practices.

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