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Environmental Behavior Change: Kaitlin Raimi

Kaitlin Raimi explains about how people behave when discussing environmental issues.
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Hi everyone! My name is Katie and I’m a Ph.D. student here at the University of Michigan, and I’m really excited to be here today with Dr. Kaitlin Raimi, who is a social psychologist and a assistant professor at the Ford School of Public Policy here at Michigan. Thanks for joining us. We’re really excited to have you here today. Thanks. It’s great to be here. So, as I said, Kaitlin is a social psychologist and she does a lot of really interesting research at the intersection of psychology and the environment. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about how this research is relevant to climate change? Absolutely.
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So, I mean humans are the cause of climate change and so understanding how people think and act is really important if we want to solve this problem. Getting people to act either in terms of policies and supporting kind of grand-scale efforts or in terms of individual behavior and the things that they can do on their own time voluntarily to help combat climate change. So you said that individual behavior is one of the primary ways in which we can think about environmental psychology. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of your research that has focused on individual behaviors? Sure. So I’ve been interested in how people are motivated by each other to act on climate change.
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So, for example, finding out how they compare to their friends or colleagues can be something that motivates people. We all want to be liked, we want to be like the people that we like, and so finding out that other people are doing stuff can be one thing that gets people motivated to act themselves. So, I look at things like that, I also look at how different ways of framing climate change, might make it a little bit better to understand for different people, for different groups. And also, how once you get people to do one behavior, what does that mean for their behaviors down the road? And we can talk about more about that later. Sure, yeah.
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One of the things I wanted to ask you about was the concept of environmental peer persuasion. Can you tell us a little bit about that, maybe describe it for us? Yes. So we often think about persuasion when it comes to climate change and environmental stuff that’s something that comes from the top, that some scientist or a policymaker, some communicator who is in an official capacity is telling people what to do or what to think. But what often happens is that people are talking to each other. We get a lot of information from talking to our friends and our family and people around us.
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And so there’s increasing amount of study that’s looked at how people talk to each other about climate change. And so what we’ve been looking at is whether there are differences in terms of individual personality traits and things like that that affect people’s willingness to talk to other people. We find there are some people who just love talking to other people about environmental stuff and seem to be good at it and enjoy doing that and having those conversations, and other people who are not so inclined to do that. There’s other research not by myself but from other colleagues looking at what’s called the spiral of silence.
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So there is this misperception by a lot of people who care about climate change that they’re alone in thinking that – that other people don’t think of this as a big issue. When in reality, the majority of Americans at this point are concerned about climate change and want to do something about it. And so by correcting this misperception, it actually makes people feel like they’re able to talk about climate change who are willing to talk to their friends and try and come up with solutions that way they can work on together. A spiral of silence, that’s really well named. Can you talk a little bit more about that and maybe talk about ways in which communication can overcome that, or…?
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Yeah. So I think just letting people know that they’re not in the minority is a really important piece. So the studies that have been done actually just tell people what the reality is, which is that a majority of Americans care about climate change. And once people see those numbers, they think, oh it’s not so scary. I’m not surrounded by people who disagree with me, like I can talk to them. And so, it makes them much more – feel much more competent in their ability to talk to others just because they think it’ll be a more friendly conversation. And so, they’re more willing to do that and that can get the ball rolling to actually turn that talk into action.
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And you also said earlier that some people may be better at having conversations about environmental issues or climate change. Can you talk about what makes someone good at having those conversations or what makes it more challenging? So we’ve measured this thing that’s called environmental moral exporting. So it’s that people’s willingness to kind of export or try and persuade others of their environmental views, and we don’t know yet what causes people to be high in this, it’s just something they have – we don’t know how they got there. But the people who are high in environmental moral exporting, people who are high in environmental exporting are more willing to have conversations, and they’re more willing to have two-way conversations.
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So there are other personality traits that make people feel very certain that they’re correct about their views, but they don’t particularly want to have conversations about it. They just want to feel good and be smart and feel better than everybody else. But people who are high in environment moral exporting really want to go out and engage with others and talk about these issues. And so I think those are much more promising in terms of actually moving the ball. How do you think that peer-to-peer communication can be most effective? I think when it comes to, I think there’s a number of ways it can be effective.
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It can be effective just in terms of talking about the science and what the problem is. You know, it’s a really complex problem, so most people don’t, can’t wrap their heads around it, even people who study it can’t totally wrap their heads around every aspect of it. So I think, one thing that’s important is just making sure the basic message is across of, say, what is climate change? What can we expect? What are the likely outcomes? How might it affect our community? And helping friends, neighbors understand that. And then the next step is, well, talking about, well, what can we do about it? That could be pushing for different types of climate change mitigation to try and prevent the problem.
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It could be talking about adaptation. So if you’re in a coastal community, for example, you might think about worrying about where water might be rising in your community, or you might talk about, you know, whether there needs to be a better electricity grid in your particular area if there’s gonna be more brownouts with higher temperatures and things like that. So I think, by talking to the people in your community, you have a better sense of what is going on that’s specific to you and you can act in a more local way. And sometimes that can make you feel like things are moving more than they do at the more national or international stage. Yeah.
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So really focusing on what’s happening to you and your community and the people you know. I think that’s often a really good place to start. I mean, I think there are some people who prefer to do more, you know, public action and push for national agendas, and I think that’s super important as well. So if that’s your inclination, by all means, go for it, encourage your friends to do that. But I think for a lot of people, that can feel daunting, and so starting more locally may be a way to get a kind of the foot in the door to get started. Right. Yeah. That’s really interesting.
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Another facet of your work that I found really interesting was the idea that making a good impression or feeling like you’re making a good impression can really influence the actions that people take. Can you talk a little bit about that as well? Yeah, so I think that, you know, we all, I know I personally have this feeling when I go into the grocery store and I forget to bring my reusable bag and I live in a community where people really care about that, so I feel, you know, the shame of using the plastic bag and not having brought my own. And that’s a real thing.
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This is a social pressure that can be really strong, and so I think that for behaviors that are public, that can also often be a motivating factor. People want to look good to people around them, and to the extent that looking good means doing something that’s good for the climate. That’s a great thing, it can be a motivator. I think where it can get in trouble is if it’s motivating the wrong types of behaviors. So if people are only doing the things that are very public to be seen, rather than the most, the behaviors that have the most impact, that’s a problem.
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And it can also be a problem if you’re in a community where environmental things are seen as a bad thing. So if you don’t want to do environmental stuff or you don’t want to take climate action because you fear that your community will laugh at you or worse, then I think that’s, you know, there can be a problem. Yeah. What would you recommend for people who may live in a place where environmental actions aren’t perceived or pro-climate change actions or positions aren’t perceived in a positive light? Yeah, well, I think the good thing about a lot of climate actions is that it helps not just the climate, it helps a lot of other things.
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So if you care about health, if you care about water, if you care about all kinds of things that everybody cares about, then a lot of those behaviors that’ll help that will also help climate change. So I think sometimes it’s a matter of framing it for yourself and for your friends. But then you can also talk about, I mean that’s a great opportunity if you’re in a community where not a lot of people seem to care about climate change. It might be a good opportunity to change some hearts and minds. Talk about why you’re concerned about it and what it is that made you worried in the first place as a member of this community.
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People are not gonna listen to people who are very different from them. You know, if somebody is coming from the outside and telling people what, how things are, that’s not always the most persuasive message. But if you’re part of a community and you have standing there, that’s a great opportunity to kind of talk from within and talk about why this is important to your particular place. Yeah, like at Thanksgiving dinner. Like at Thanksgiving dinner. As tough as it could be. The classic in community conversation. Yes.
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One other thing that I wanted to ask you about is from some of your more recent work, describing or researching mental models that people can use that are maybe rooted in more familiar domains to help other people understand climate change or even help themselves understand climate change. Can you tell us about that more recent work of yours? Yes. You’ll sometimes see in news articles that people will use – we call them mental models but they’re basically just analogies or metaphors. So, they’ll talk about climate change as though it’s analogous to a medical disease. So, for example, you know, climate change, the prognosis is unknown – we have this diagnosis.
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The scientists say that this thing is happening, they don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen in the future, they don’t know what the prognosis will be in different scenarios. There’s different treatments, some of those treatments might have side effects. So there’s all these things that are kind of similar between climate change and medical diseases. And so talking about a more familiar domain, like imagining that you’ve been diagnosed with a disease, helps people remember that they make decisions about uncertain things all the time. So, we’re very used to making decisions when we don’t have the full set of information.
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Climate change, for some reason, people react to that by saying well we don’t have all the information, so let’s just not do anything. But that isn’t how you would act if you got diagnosed with a disease. And so, giving people this framework to think about decision making that’s a little bit more familiar and something that they’re used to seems like it might be something that can help people. There are other analogies that are sometimes used like insurance or disaster preparedness. It’s similar to protecting your home against flood and fire and things like that. We didn’t actually find that that was all that helpful for people, so I wouldn’t use that one.
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The medical analogy seems to be the most promising, but even those results have been fairly weak, I should say. So, it can be something that’s helpful and it’s worth giving a shot and trying it out, and seeing if that works as you’re talking to your friends and it helps them understand. But we don’t know for sure that that’s like a hundred percent gonna work, right, in all situations. It’s promising. It’s promising. Right. How would you think about these findings being used or sort of operationalized, so to say?
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Yeah, I think they could be operationalized by anybody who’s trying to explain the science – so this could be formal educators like teachers or, you know, climate scientists who are trained to communicate their work, but it could be just in peer-to-peer conversations. We use analogies all the time to explain other things. In fact, the whole idea of a greenhouse effect, that’s an analogy to a greenhouse. Yeah, we forget that some times. Yeah and it’s, you know, that’s one that that helps a lot with understanding the basic science behind climate change, and that the medical analogy is one that helps more with the decision making around what to do about it. Great. So, final question.
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I’m wondering, given your research, given your experience, if you were to recommend one action that learners in this MOOC take to help address climate change or even encourage others to take action, what would you recommend? I think that people often think of the things that are small and repeated behaviors as the things that they should be doing. So people think a lot about turning off the lights or, you know, walking to work and things like that, which are great, but they’re hard to do to remember to do all the time and they often, each individual behavior doesn’t have that much of an impact.
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The things that actually have more of an impact are the bigger things you do once and then don’t have to think about. So, if you are a homeowner, buying a more efficient appliance is much more effective than changing the settings on your washing machine every time you use it. If you’re not a homeowner, which many of us are not, then you may want to do something like weatherproofing your house. So, you can put that little caulk in the windows and it seems like such a small thing but it actually adds up over time. And then you don’t have to think about it, you just do it the one time.
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So that’s what I would suggest is starting with these kind of one-time investments in – I would recommend starting with these one-time investments in energy efficiency or in, you know, moving to a house that’s closer to where you need to go to work so that you don’t have to think about actively doing these behaviors every day. Right. Yes. So maybe embed it into your life as much as possible. Yes. Anything that you can like set it and forget it is useful for all aspects of your life. Yeah, yeah and that’s from a psychologist, so I’ll take it. All right, well, Caitlin, thank you so much. My pleasure. We really appreciated having you here.
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We really appreciate your insights, and thank you so much. Of course. Thank you.

In this segment, Kaitlin Raimi provides additional insights from the field of psychology and behavior change about how we can drive environmental behavior change.

Kaitlin Raimi is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy in the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Kaitlin’s bio here.

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