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Social Psychology and its Applications in Environmental Efforts

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  • 0:07 Psychology & the Environment
  • 1:28 Resolving Social Dilemmas
  • 2:47 Changing Social Norms
  • 3:47 Inducing Hypocrisy
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Social psychologists have used information from their experiments to change people's behaviors in an effort to save the environment. In this lesson, we'll look at several psychological principles and how they can be applied to environmental efforts.

Applied Social Psychology and the Environment

Imagine that you have a beautiful, ornate picture frame that has been passed down to you. It's so beautiful, in fact, that you can't find a spot on your wall suitable for hanging it. Since you don't know where to hang the picture frame, you put it on a shelf in the back of your closet. But, what good does it do there?

Psychologists have struggled with a similar situation for years; that is, they have unique tools, but aren't quite sure what to do with them. Social psychologists study society and individuals' thoughts, feelings and behaviors. For many years, their studies have told us about how people and society interact. But, how should social psychologists use the information from these experiments?

The use of social psychology principles to solve social issues and make the world a better place is called applied social psychology. One area where applied social psychology has been extensively explored is the area of environmental studies. Social psychologists have discovered three ways that social psychology principles can be applied to saving the environment:

  1. Resolving social dilemmas
  2. Changing social norms
  3. Inducing hypocrisy

Let's look at each one a little more in-depth.

Resolving Social Dilemmas

Imagine that I gave you and six other people $6. I tell you that you have two options: You can keep the $6, or you can donate the money to a group pool. Any money in the group pool will be doubled and distributed equally among all the participants. If everyone donates their money to the group pool, everyone will end up with $12, twice the amount I gave you. Do you donate?

This is a classic experiment that demonstrates the issue with a social dilemma called the commons dilemma. The commons dilemma is when a group of people all take resources from a group pool. If used in moderation, the resources will replenish and last, but if people take too much from the group pool, the resources will be used up.

In the experiment described above, most people did not donate their money; they looked out for their own interests instead of donating to the group pool. As a result, no one ended the experiment with $12, the amount that they would have received if everyone had donated.

The parallel between the commons dilemma and environmental issues is clear: If we all reduce our intake of natural resources, we can make a significant difference to the environment. But, if not everyone does, then everyone loses.

Changing Social Norms

The commons dilemma makes it clear that we need to make everyone reduce their intake of natural resources, but how can we do that? Another social psychology principle regarding social norms provides one answer.

A social norm is a social rule or expectation. For example, in many cultures, it is expected that when two people approach a door at the same time, the first person there will hold the door open for the other person. That is a social norm.

Littering will decrease if social norms state that litterers are bad individuals.
Social Norms Littering

Many studies show that if people believe that an action is frowned upon by their social group, they will refrain from doing it. In this way, changing social norms to encourage taking care of the environment could have a significant impact on the way people treat the world around them. There have been several studies on how changing social norms can reduce littering. If the social norm is not to litter (and more than that, if the social norm says that litterers are bad people), then people will not litter.

Inducing Hypocrisy

Another way that social psychologists have found to change the way people act towards the environment is by inducing hypocrisy, or forcing people to change their behaviors to avoid being a hypocrite.

Elliot Aronson studied ways to induce hypocrisy.
Elliot Aronson

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