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Behavioural Change Psychology and Preventing Burnout

Discover how to promote durable behavioral change and prevent burnout.
Hi, I’m Sachi and I’m a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I’m here today with Dr. Raymond De Young, one of our faculty members at the University and a leading researcher in environmental psychology. We’ve asked Dr. De Young to join us today, to give us some perspectives on how we can continue to engage in climate work over the long term. Thanks for joining us today. Thank you. As you know, the students in our course have been developing actions that they can take to address climate change as well as working on their own personal Climate Action Plans for the next few months.
Now that the Course is ending, though, we’re wondering, based on your work on durable behavior change, how can our learners make sure that they stay active in this field? I think that’s a big question that the field has been struggling with for many decades, so I’m probably reflecting on many other people’s work, not just my own. Durable behavior change has been a real challenge for us. If the strategies we were using back in the 60s and 70s worked as well as we hoped they did and as we needed them, we wouldn’t be here talking today. So it’s caused us to look outside the box a bit.
One of the strategies that we’ve realized has been missing for a long time is something called envisioning. To a large degree, for a long time now, we’ve encouraged students to learn how to define problems, work on solutions, test them, adopt them into their own lifestyle, get feedback, and then improve along the way. But we haven’t really gotten them to think about the world that they’d like to live in, they’d like to inhabit and it turns out that the envisioning process is more complicated than we imagined.
A number of years ago, Donella Meadows, who was one of the original authors of The Limits to Growth book back in 1972, presented a paper on envisioning sustainability and what she found was that academics, among all the different groups she studied, had the worst time envisioning. They usually were problem-oriented people and they actually resisted the process of envisioning what the world would look like. An example she gave it was a world without hunger but she imagined a world that had solved climate change issues, resource issues, toxic issues and she found that, left alone, academics and their students did a horrible job at it.
And so recently, there’s been a movement afoot in psychology to develop what we call a perspection psychology - how to get people to imagine futures, empathize with other people’s views of the future, kind of play with world views of future situations that they’d like to have occur, and then to kind of move them from that future state back to a series of nearer term goals and then to work toward picking behaviors as tools or instruments to get to those goals. This is exactly the opposite of what a lot of models do; they usually end the model at behavior change.
They imagine that the real purpose of the whole initiative is to get people to change their behavior and I think that’s still true, but the behavior is only a way of getting into a desirable future. So one thing, I think, students have to be taught or have to practice is this envisioning process. And to be honest, we haven’t done a lot of teaching on it. There’s not a lot of good guidelines or coursework on it and we’re just beginning to develop some of the training techniques for it.
One of the places in which we’ve developed those is in the field of clinical psychology where we do what’s called empathy training, getting people to empathize with others or other states of mind or another person. So when people come to reinvent themselves, how do you empathize with that new version of yourself? The second thing we’ve learned to do is to focus on satisfactions, intrinsic satisfactions. It turns out that we’re much better about motivating or changing behavior in the short-term. So education, information processes, social norms, various kinds of tangible monetary and other kinds of incentives do a great job of changing behavior but the effect tends to fade very quickly.
And we know this from a lot of research; we also know it from a century in psychology that tended to focus only on short-term behavior change. So we’ve kind of not developed a toolbox of long, durable, enduring, easy to restart behavior change techniques. And so one of the strategies, the one that I’m most closely involved with, is intrinsic satisfaction, a form of intrinsic motivation. It suggests that people can adopt a behavior in order for them to receive the kind of internal sense of well-being that they so often desire. And that well-being is not being manipulated by someone else, so it’s available to them in the future and they can continue that behavior and continue to gain that intrinsic satisfaction.
We’ve been working on this and it turns out that there’s a number of different kinds of intrinsic satisfactions that are really relevant for climate change issues, other kinds of behavior change that involve environmental stewardship. One of them is a kind of satisfaction from being frugal or resourceful or clever and people tend to just love that kind of exploring, that kind of discovery process. They also tend to gain a lot of internal satisfaction from doing things that matter or that make a difference, that solve problems that have been sticky, that society has trouble with. And, in those situations, they’re really getting a satisfaction from engagement or participation. And a third major category is something called competence.
It turns out that people love to discover new ways of doing things. They’re always kind of geeked out about discovering, you know, new techniques or being clever at solving problems or sharing solutions with people and they get a real internal kick from that kind of behavior. So this whole internal landscape is something that psychology ignored for a long time and we’ve learned, over the last three or four decades, is a major source of enduring behavior change. And then the last thing we’ve been doing is realizing too much of the focus has been on one behavior - using energy efficient lights or adopting different transportation methods that are less likely to emit emissions or have other kinds of pollutants.
And while each of these is important, they’re, together, not sufficient. They’re rarely enough to make a dramatic difference in the environment. And so what we’ve learned to do is begin to package these things. A pattern of behaviors over a person’s life, or maybe not life, but a week at least. If you can imagine that one of the problems people have had is they get tired of doing the same behavior over and over again or sometimes they do what’s called rebound, there’s a process called the rebound effect, or Jevon’s paradox, where people are very efficient in the short-term, maybe they’re highly efficient in picking electrical lighting systems, but they feel like they’re off the hook for other behaviors.
Or they end up doing very efficient lighting, but they put in far more lights than they ever had before and, in the end, consume more energy. Well, it’s unlikely to get that kind of rebound if the behaviors are picked either to get you toward that vision that I mentioned earlier or if they’re part of a package of behaviors where you wouldn’t imagine misbehaving in another domain just because you behaved at home or at the office. And so we realized that packaging these things as a pattern of activities ends up creating a more durable effect. And the other kind, the last thing I’ll say is, the other kind of packaging we do is getting people together.
It rarely works to have people pursue these things alone. They end up getting distracted, there’s lots of other things going on in their lives, and they often need help of other people. So we’ve tried what called community-based strategies, approaches that form teams or neighborhood groups that both support one another and act as sort of a norm developing group where they begin to nudge each other a little bit day-to-day and they’ll kind of call you out if you begin to slip a little bit or lapse. So the idea of having a rebound effect or getting up on a behavior is less likely on these community programs.
I’m just trying to think of how we might apply some of these very broad concepts to the level of coming up with concrete actions that we’re trying to take ourselves. When you think about packaging actions, creating patterns, creating habits, do you have any examples of people who have done that with climate-related actions? Sure.
A number of years ago, we used to do a lot more work on pledges where we got adults or children to look over their behaviors over a period of time and then commit to reducing activity in different domains - so maybe transportation, energy use, food choices, recreation - and get them to sign a pledge that said they were going to reduce so many either pounds of CO2 or so many joules of energy or something.
But, in the end, what they were doing was writing this little guide to themselves that there are many different domains that they should be acting on and, if they aren’t as successful in one of them, they can double down on another one of them and so there is this sort of packaging of their life pattern. In the group-based stuff, there’s a lot of interesting work being done in Europe right now, particularly Western Europe where they have what are called eco teams. These are neighborhood groups drawn from across the community, they usually engage for up to six to eight weeks, working each week through a workbook on different topics like food or water or energy.
And they’re usually made up of just normal citizens but under the support of experts. The experts have to do something that’s very unique to experts; they explain the problem to people and they provide some of the background material, but then they shut up and it’s very rare to get experts to shut up. And so the people try small experiments, they go back to their family or their workplace, try something and then, the next week, report what worked or didn’t. And sometimes they’ll discover a successful approach, sometimes they have something they want to share, often they find what fails and other people know not to try that. But, in this case, you’re forming a kind of group or community-based approach.
There’s an academic version of this called community-based social marketing, but it hasn’t… It’s been used a lot in communities, but it’s still is more of an academic approach while the eco teams has really gotten out into the neighborhoods, has worked successfully. There are other groups that do this, various ecovillages, transition towns, some co-housing, and ecological housing programs kind of work this into their standard of living or standard of behavior. But, so far, those have been more… They haven’t been done in research framework, so we don’t know if they work as well. We know that the eco teams in Europe have been actually studied enough to we have a pretty good sense that they’re working well.
Are there any takeaways - this might be stretching too far. From the way you presented these eco teams is that you might have only a six to eight week engagement and that’s kind of similar to what we’re thinking with this course, where we’ve been working with learners for about seven weeks to take these actions and now the course is ending. Are there any lessons that we can draw, from maybe the eco team concept or other experiments, of how we can continue to engage with these issues after sort of a finite end point? Sure.
I mean, it’s really going back to the first question you had, which was about enduring or durable behavior change because it’s, you know, while everything’s in place, it’s easy to do the behavior; it’s harder to continue it on your own. So there’s a couple of things we know from the social grouping, these eco team and neighborhood groups, is that they often form relationships that last beyond the research part of it or the activist part of it. So, long after the researcher or the activist or the practitioner’s gone away, these groups continue to stay in touch. And, in fact, the better groups now are forming those kinds of networks as part of these eco team efforts.
We know that social norms are very powerful. Most people think that, individually, they’re not as affected by social norms, everyone else is, but it turns out that everybody is very hyper sensitive to it. So the more we can develop these networks of people that stay in touch, the more the behavior will endure. There’ve been a number of long-term studies on these kinds of issues. Long-term would be where the project last for six to eight weeks and then you come back and survey them or study them or observe them a year later or a year and a half later.
One of them was done in Germany, many years ago, where they were getting people to reduce their consumption, something called source reduction. They weren’t recycling as much as they were just trying to reduce the total throughput of materials. And they got people engaged in what we would now call an eco team approach although it was called just a research project back then. And then, unbeknownst to the people, they were being monitored, because the waste was carefully controlled in this community, they were being monitored as long as 18 months later. What was fascinating was they not only maintained the same level of participation they had during the project, they actually increased it.
So their behavior continued to expand which had been up, until that time, unheard of. So we’ve got some long-term studies. There’s a continuing interest in these eco teams in Europe and they’ve continued to both follow some of the original teams, but more of the effort has been pushing it out into new communities. But one of the ways in which we think we can increase this commitment to the behavior is to take the early members of these efforts and make them the mentors for the newer programs.
And so you end up having a sort of a, I wouldn’t quite call it an expert since the citizens don’t want to be called experts, but the early adopters or the people who have tried it and so they can give a little bit of a head start for the newer group. And also there’s, then, greater commitment to that mentor, that they feel as though their involvement is worthwhile, is genuine. So we go back to that intrinsic satisfaction, they now are doing something that matters in the long run that will make a difference.
And so the more we can do this multi-stage - it’s not quite right to call it multi-generations, it doesn’t last long - but different stages and bring mentoring along, the better will be. And that idea has been very popular in sociology, social psychology, but it hasn’t yet been adopted, to a large degree, in the practitioner kind of stuff we do in environmental stewardship. But as I say, it’s starting to be used in Europe and in a few places here in the States. Okay.
So that actually brings me to my next question for you because, as I think about maybe an individual who went through this process once and gained all of this knowledge about how to act and is now thinking about paying it forward and continuing their new behaviors while bringing someone else along with them, teaching someone else, you know, what the process looks like, one of the things we’re actually worried about is that when you engage too deeply in something like this you can get burned out. And I think I’ve actually, I think you said something in class like, “Burned out people can’t save the world,” or something to that effect.
Could you just talk about that a little bit and maybe give us some ideas for how you avoid the pitfall of getting overcommitted and burned out with a big issue like this? I think it’s a major problem. It’s not just environmental issues; it’s any kind of major social issue, and we know that people do burn out. We have lots of people who have to take retreats, have to take time off and all. So one of the efforts in environmental stewardship behavior change programs is to prevent that kind of burnout and it involved us, involved researching, involved us going back into the literature on attentional resources.
So, to explain it, I have to explain one kind of attention, which we’re all using right now to follow this conversation, it’s called directed attention. And the capacity to direct attention is a unique attribute of human information processing; it also happens to be something that fatigues. So at the end of this conversation, you and I will have less of it, the end of people watching this, they’ll have less of it, end of a hard day, the end of a hard week, it’ll be even less of it. And when you have mental fatigue, this sort of lack of mental vitality, there’s a lot of things that happen that are bad.
You get irritable, you snap at people, you look on the dark side of things, you’re more likely to take offense, you can’t follow through on anything, you lose track of things, you lose track of your strategy, of your plan, of your schedule. You’re also unwilling to start new behaviors, which, of course, is a big thing in conservation behavior change. So we realized that this fatigue was a major problem.
We know from some studies in the field of cognitive psychology that, when we look at different populations, those people who spend more time in nature, actively engaged in observing or walking through or working in nature, tend to have more mental rest, more mental vitality than those who recreate in other ways or are at rest in different ways. And, from an evolutionary psychology point of view, we realized that people, when we were evolving the different information processing systems, people probably had to use directed attention a lot less; other kinds of attention sufficed. And at the same time, if they needed to restore, nature was literally an arm’s length away so it was very easy to get restoration.
And jump to today, we have exactly the opposite where a large amount of what we do uses this kind of attention. To work in crowded areas on complex abstract ideas, climate change has got to be one of the big abstract concepts, over long periods of time, depletes directed attention and yet restoration is not easy. It’s not just an arm’s length away; we have to plan it into our schedule, we have to seek out these environments. And so we realized, early on, that mental vitality, rested directed attention, was likely a precondition to trying new behaviors, to sticking with a project, basically to not get burned out.
And so a lot of the projects I have my students work on, I encourage them to include some kind of restorative activity and it can be some kind of mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga, meditation, more likely it’s a walk in the woods. So if we have a conference at a retreat or a workshop near an outdoor park, we try to get people to take walks before and sometime in the middle of a conference to get them more rested.
We’ve done large numbers of small experiments that prove that people do a lot better, they’re more creative, they’re less contentious, they like the experience more, and they’re more likely to respond, afterwards, that the experience was useful and find themselves actually putting the stuff into practice, the behavior change or the educational strategies or motivational strategies. So we have some short-term evidence of that.
We also know that from the communities, these eco team examples or the ecovillages or the co-housing, that those communities that have more nature nearby, more of a sustainable agricultural focus or large scale gardening, that people tend to stick with the behavior changes, tend to stay with the community’s plans and policies much much better than those communities that are more social in their engagement so their community activity won’t be agricultural or nature-focused. Rather than being nature-focused, those activities would be into social issues where they’re continuing to have to work with very abstract ideas and with difficult situations, further depleting attention.
So we have this kind of evidence, large numbers of natural small experiments going on, that say that this resource is very important. So my advice to the students would be don’t worry about the fact that directed attention gets fatigued; it’s natural. It’s what you do when you’re working really hard on something that’s really important is you get brain dead. But work into your schedule some kind of restorative activities - walks in the woods, take up some activity like bird watching. If you’re going to take runs or other kinds of exercise, try to work through wooded areas, try to be near water.
And then also, just take more time out during the day to stare at nature or to just reflect a little bit, to slow down. The other piece of advice we give them is that the directed attention we have is finite. And so, if you have a large number of distractions during the day, you’re going to have more fatigue than you would have otherwise. So the distractions can be anything from cell phones interrupting you, trying to study in a noisy environment. A coffee shop is a great example.
Everyone loves to go to a coffee shop and study while drinking coffee or tea, but it tends to be a terrible environment for actually managing your directed attention capacity because you’re constantly having to be using that attention to bring yourself back to the task at hand because there’s so many interruptions, so many noises, so many people, so many movements and such.
So if you can reduce the distractions, if you can be in environments that are less vibrant and less noisy, less exciting some of the time, then you’re going to be able to work with whatever directed attention you have longer and be less irritable and, therefore, the group work that you’re doing is going to be more rewarding for you, and particularly, for everybody else. That’s perfect. I think I just have one more question for you. And we’re asking all of our experts to give us one action that, if our learners were only able to do one thing, take one action, make one change to address climate change, what do you think that action should be and why? Just one?
I’d probably say plant a garden. Okay. It gives you a number of things. It gives you some nature restoration, so you’re going to get directed attention restored. It really puts you into a position where you’re not in control. Anybody who gardens knows that you don’t control the growth of plants; you facilitate or you encourage it. Local food consumes a lot less energy, in terms of transportation and processing and storage, than food from any distance. Usually, it’s something that gets the neighbors interested and so you have the possibility of sharing what you’ve just done with either young kids in the neighborhood or adults so you have the opportunity to have conversations about nature and about food and about energy.
And there have been very few negative consequences of gardening. So it’s not like there’s going to be some kind of a rebound effect where we don’t have any evidence that people who garden tend to consume more energy or tend to travel more or anything like that. So I’d say plant a garden. That’s perfect.Thank you so much for being here with us today, Dr. De Young. It’s been really helpful to get your expert perspective on some of these issues of behavior change. Thank you very much.

In this video, Ray De Young provides insights from the field of psychology and behavior change about how we can promote durable behavior change within our own lives, specifically within the context of taking action on climate change. He also discusses strategies to prevent burnout.

Ray De Young is an Associate Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Ray’s bio here.

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