Psychological Crucial Factors of Sustainable Behavior Within and After the Pandemic

Business people walking in a financial district, blurred motion

By Nadine Karnetzke and Michael Palocz-Andresen

Human behavior is at the root of the climate crisis, the recently published IPCC report leaves no doubt about that. Therefore, a psychological understanding of the crucial influencing factors for sustainable behavioral change is necessary. The COVID-19 pandemic activated some of these factors. This paper explores which drivers of sustainable behavior were activated in the context of the pandemic and how they might promote sustainable development in the future. 

Introduction

The global pandemic caused disruption to people’s daily life and led to drastic behavioral changes, e.g. in work, travel and lifestyle. Some of these changes were accompanied by (albeit minimal) positive impacts on the environment. In April 2020 there was for example a temporally global decrease in CO2 emissions of 17 % compared to 2019 [1]. Although this short period of time will not have a lasting impact on the climate [1], a lot might be learned from it, especially about people’s decision-making and behavior when confronted with a crisis. According to the latest data, searches for Psychologists near me in Sydney have increased by more than 47% since the beginning of the pandemic.

This paper explores which psychological mechanisms may have triggered behavior change during the pandemic and offers an outlook on how this can be strengthened in the future. In doing so, an environmental psychological perspective is adopted to provide an understanding of what promotes individual sustainable behavior. Which psychological factors are crucial for environmentally friendly behavior? Which ones have been activated in times of pandemic? And how can sustainability agents maintain and promote this in the future? 

figure 1
Figure 1. Schematic overview of the structure and contents of the paper

Examining key factors of the decision-making processes and shedding light on the role of the social context, this paper finally outlines practical examples and implications.

Introduction to Psychological Factors Associated with Pro-environmental Behavior

In the process of developing a certain behavior, various aspects interplay and influence individuals. To approach the mechanisms of environmental protection behavior, the following model of the decisive influencing factors for sustainable behavior was developed, see Fig. 2.

figure 2
Figure 2: Model of the crucial factors influencing decision-making for sustainable behavior

The main elements are:

  1. Individual ecological norm (activated by problem awareness, sense of responsibility, self-efficacy)
  2. Social norms (consisting of prescriptive and descriptive social norms)
  3. Consideration process and intention formation, which is influenced by habits and emotional states
  4. A resulting behavioral intention leads to environmental behavior and its consequences

In the following, the focus will be on the activation of norms (personal and social norms) as a decisive influencing factor for sustainable behavior in view of the complexity of the topic.

Individual Psychological Influencing Factors

Individual ecological norms describe personal attitudes towards ecological behavior and the commitment to environmentally friendly behavior. They are activated by problem awareness, a sense of responsibility and perceived self-efficacy [2], see Fig. 3.

Figure 3: Psychological factors of the individual ecological norm activation
Figure 3: Psychological factors of the individual ecological norm activation

Problem awareness refers to an individual’s perception of whether the natural ecological environment is threatened [2]. It can be further divided into problem knowledge (a person is aware about environmental issues) and action knowledge (he/she knows about environmentally friendly actions) [3].

The sense of responsibility is accompanied with the perception that parts of the environmental problem are rooted in one’s own person [2]. This self-attribution, as well as the feelings of guilt that can accompany it, can be motivating factors for sustainable behavior [4]. However, they can also lead to cognitive dissonance. This means that people have incompatible cognitions simultaneously.

For example, people might see it as valuable to protect the climate and know that flying is harmful, but at the same time they fly for business trips. They try to resolve this state of mental imbalance by either changing their behavior according to their values (e.g. ‘I don’t fly any more’) or by neutralizing their values and adapting them to behavior (e.g. ‘climate protection is less important to me when it comes to my job’) [5]. The latter happens especially when people see no room for manoeuvre or experience low self-efficacy [6]. 

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s own abilities, resulting from the knowledge of one’s own competencies and the perception of using them successfully. For example, people can experience themselves as self-efficacious when they use their skills in sustainability initiatives, e.g. urban gardening groups, sustainable tourism, education, etc. This perceived self-efficacy regarding environmental issues can then increase the motivation for sustainable action [7].

The three psychological aspects of personal ecological norm intertwine and influence each other. Problem and action knowledge, for example, are important in increasing both the sense of responsibility and self-efficacy [6]. 

Social influencing factors 

Once a single person becomes part of a group the individual norms oftentimes tend to be overridden by social norms [8]. Social norms are rules and standards shared by many people that guide behavior without the need of formal laws [9]. The term ‘social norm’ refers to people’s perceptions and beliefs about what is appropriate behavior (i.e. socially accepted) in a given social situation [10]. Oftentimes the perception of what one ‘should do’ in a group differs from the observation of what other group members ‘actually do’.

Therefore, social norms are differentiated into two types: prescriptive and descriptive social norms [6]. Prescriptive norms (‘should norms’) describe what should be done according to the group opinion. Whereas descriptive norms (‘actual norms’) come from the observation of others’ actual behavior [6]. It is more likely that people do what they see others doing. Hence, the influence of descriptive norms is stronger [8].

For example, in a company everyone might talk about the environmental benefits of cycling, leading one member to believe: ‘I should cycle to work because everyone is talking about it’. (prescriptive norm). On the other hand, this person finds that the actual behavior of organizational members differs: ‘observe that my colleagues come by car every day’ (descriptive norm). In this case, it is more likely that the descriptive norm will be followed and the person will eventually also drive to work.

Self-efficacy can also be found in a social setting and is then referred to as collective self-efficacy [6]. It can be more effective, especially when a person does not feel capable on an individual level [11].

Learning from role models is another way of social influence that promotes pro-environmental behavior [12]. The concept of social role models in this context refers to people learning from others through observation, imitation and modelling of pro-environmental behavior [6]. Fig. 4 presents the most important social influencing factors. 

Figure 4: Most important social influencing factors 
Figure 4: Most important social influencing factors

Having laid a foundation with this outline of the influencing factors of personal and social norms, it will now be examined which of these aspects were activated during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Impact of Covid-19 and Psychological Influencing Factors of Sustainability Behavior

Although the impact of the Corona pandemic on persistent behavioral change will only be accurately ascertainable in the long term, initial research observations have been made. In several areas of daily life, such as education or travel, people radically adjusted their behavior, some of which were accompanied by benefits for the environment. Reduced mobility and travel, for example, led to a reduction in air pollution and improved air quality (NO₂ levels decreased up to -40% in Chinese cities, and up to -38% in Western Europe and the United States [13]). The change in people’s individual transport behavior and the economic depression associated with the COVID-19 pandemic also led to a significant decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions of 8% in 2020 compared to 2019 [14].

What is it about the Pandemic that made Individuals Change their Behavior to a more Environmentally Friendly Way? 

It has been shown in the past that major disruptions lead to behavioral changes and the breaking of habits [15], in the case of this pandemic also in a sustainable favorable way [16]. Looking at the Model of the crucial factors influencing decision-making for sustainable behavior (Fig. 2), various factors at different levels could play a role.

The Pandemic and the Activation of Individual Ecological Norms

Schmidt et. al. [16] found that in the pandemic, the strength of existing individual ecological norms moderated the relationship between the influence of external changes and sustainable behavior change (specifically mobility behavior) in that COVID-19-related changes had a stronger effect on individuals with pre-existing higher personal norms. This could be due to the phenomenon that people with high personal norms are more sensitive to change. Previous research showed that long-term behavioral changes are more likely when a person has high personal norms that favor these changes [17]. In the model (Fig. 2), this sensitivity could indicate strengthened problem awareness and responsibility as activating factors of individual ecological norm.

Problem awareness and a sense of responsibility may also have been strengthened because the connection between human health and nature became more visible, as the virus was most likely transmitted from animals to humans through the destruction of natural habitats [18]. A meta-analysis by Mackay et al. [19] shows that an increased sense of connectedness with nature has a significant relationship with pro-environmental behavior. Thus, the tangibility of the ecological crisis as a threat to human health may have activated the individual ecological norm, generating a new climate identification moment.

Furthermore, gaining first-hand experience is an effective starting point for behavioral change (e.g. increased climate awareness and willingness to save energy was observed after experiencing a flood disaster, [20]).

On an individual level, the pandemic also influenced people’s intention towards climate protection behavior. The United Nations surveyed one million people worldwide about their wishes for the future after COVID-19. The majority said that climate action was very important and should be included as a priority in COVID-19 recovery plans [21]. Other opinion polls show that the return of blue skies, clean air or wildlife was perceived positively, and a ‘return to normal’ was doubted as a state to strive for [22]. These considerations can also be attributed to the activation of individual ecological norms through increased awareness during the pandemic period.

Social Influencing Factors activated through the Pandemic

On a social level, observing others carrying out environmentally friendly behavior in times of the pandemic might have activated descriptive social norms. This was observable, for example, within the sector of work.

During the pandemic, remote work increased, and business travel decreased [23]. The Global Business Travel Association reported that 89% of member countries cancelled international business travel at the time of the pandemic [24].

As a result, international business travel experienced a sharp decrease of -70 % in 2020 [25]. Looking at the Model (Fig. 2), this change in work can be attributed not only to the individual, but also to a social level. The social culture in many organizations changed, e.g. in establishing new ways of communicating or social gatherings [23]. Therefore, it is not only the place of work that transformed, but also the (social) image people have of it. This is confirmed by Microsoft’s global report [26] that shows how people’s idea of work has changed: 73% of workers want to keep flexible remote working, 66% of managers plan to redesign offices after the pandemic.

Another area of social influence is education. Unfortunately, in the wake of the pandemic, the education system collapsed in many places. On the other hand, many study programs and projects in the field of sustainability switched to virtual learning [22]. Online education can impart knowledge on the one hand and exert social influence on the other. By reshaping social aspects of education, learners could have turned to new role models and participate in social groups globally, which may have fostered social norm activation.

Collective self-efficacy, as another social impact factor, got apparent especially in the way people responded to the Corona virus outbreak to successfully manage restrictive lifestyle changes together [27].

The disruption of the pandemic and the accompanying personal as well as social ecological norm activation opened an opportunity for sustainable change. Nevertheless, the influence of political decision-making should not be underestimated.

From a psychological perspective, these politicians themselves are individuals, being influenced by personal and social norms. During the pandemic, they might have been encouraged more strongly (also socially) to take actions they would hardly have taken before. For example, more than 1800 cities around the world expanded public transport in course of the pandemic (e.g. Bogotá, Milan, Auckland, Berlin [28]). However, other steps towards a sustainability transmission were missed even though the window of opportunity was open (e.g. environmental requirements linked to government substitutions).

In summary, the COVID-19-related disruption was accompanied by an activation of individual and social influencing factors that stimulated behavioral change. Crucial psychological mechanisms also became evident in coping with the crisis. It will now be examined what is needed to maintain or further strengthen this after the pandemic.

A Psychological Window of Opportunity for the Long-term Behavior Change

Some opportunities and learnings can be drawn from the pandemic period. The following ideas are categorized in three main psychological intervention levels: knowledge level, skill level and mindset level. Figure 5 shows the connection between the intervention levels and the psychological influencing factors they address.

Figure 5. Intervention levels and addressed psychological factors
Figure 5. Intervention levels and addressed psychological factors

Knowledge Level: Interventions to promote Problem Awareness

Interventions on the knowledge level aim at activating problem awareness as part of individual ecological norm activation. They strengthen problem knowledge and convey it hand in hand with action knowledge. Here, education of all kinds is a worthwhile path.

Invest in online education: As described above, online education can exert social influence in addition to problem awareness. Through the virtual place, people with existing or pandemically activated high individual ecological norms can be reached worldwide. They could be trained to become promoters of sustainability in their local communities, e.g. launch a local initiative to protect the environment. Social influence would thus be potentiated, see Fig. 6.

Figure 6. Knowledge-level intervention: Online education
Figure 6. Knowledge-level intervention: Online education

Skill Level: Interventions to Provide Action Knowledge & Enhance Self-Efficacy

Promote participation in green recovery: Creating a green recovery after the pandemic is one way of picking up the upsurge in sustainability awareness and the experiences that individuals gained. The term ‘green recovery’ refers to creating green jobs, investing in education and digital infrastructure, or tying government subsidies to green [22].

A green recovery requires participation of politics and citizens. Participatory interventions are a way to strengthen (collective) self-efficacy. Therefore, such interventions should incorporate three factors: Knowledge about effectiveness, training in ecologically sustainable behavior and frequent feedback [6]. An exemplary intervention is a participatory simulation game in the city of Hamburg, in which citizens are asked to help shaping the mobility for Hamburg 2030 [29], see Fig. 7.

Figure 7. Skill-level intervention: Participation in the green recovery 
Figure 7. Skill-level intervention: Participation in the green recovery

Mindset Level: Interventions to Address a Sense of Responsibility & Social Factors

Address experiences made: In the pandemic, first-hand experience was made. For example, people experienced the interconnectedness of humans with the environment and the fragility of nature, but also how quickly man-made systems can change. These experiences remain anchors that sustainability actors can refer to even after the pandemic. On a mindset level, they can create a sense of responsibility and (collective) self-efficacy (for example in knowing after the pandemic, that ‘we can deal with crisis’).

Create a new narrative: Unlike single catastrophic events (such as a virus outbreak), climate change is a process whose long-term nature requires continuous stimulation of behavioral change. An effective way at a mindset level is the transmission of social norms through storytelling. People seem to identify more easily with stories than with pure data. Moreover, stories can bridge the gap between present and future, which is why stories are a suitable approach for climate communication [30].

The Model (Fig. 2) suggests that each person needs an individual story to activate sustainable behavior, depending on the personal inner compass and the social environment. Both levels (individual and social) should be addressed (Why is it worthwhile for a farmer in his community to protect the climate? Or for church members? etc.). Intertwined with a story, norms can be activated more continuously.

Strength social norms of remote work: With COVID-19 remote work increased, business travel decreased and the nature of social cooperation changed. These already broken habits can be reinforced by activating the social aspects organizationally (e.g. strengthening a social home-working norm), see Fig. 8.

Figure 8. Mindset-level intervention: Activating social norms and remote work
Figure 8. Mindset-level intervention: Activating social norms and remote work

Working from home can lead to employees becoming their own sustainability advocates, feeling more responsible (e.g. for their own energy consumption), and experiencing self-efficacy. This can be socially reinforced if they do it together with their colleagues. Training or feedback structures would promote self-efficacy here (e.g. a tracking app that shows the collective sustainability performance in a company), see Fig. 9.

Figure 9: Summary of interventions for a sustainable behaviour transition using the window of opportunity
Figure 9: Summary of interventions for a sustainable behaviour transition using the window of opportunity

Discussion & Conclusion

In this paper, crucial psychological factors for sustainable behavior within and after the COVID-19 pandemic were described. Further, some ideas for practical implications on the knowledge, skill and mindset level were presented. However, to master the transition to sustainable living, there is no way around far-reaching systemic shifts that will always provide the framework for individual action [6].

The many interdependencies must not be forgotten: Individual and group behavior, cultural, technological, economic and political factors, see Fig. 10.

Figure 10: Interconnectedness of relevant factors for a sustainability turnaround
Figure 10: Interconnectedness of relevant factors for a sustainability turnaround

One aspect cannot be fully transformed without considering the others. It is important to stress that responsibility can never be shifted to the individual action alone, even though it is the focus of this paper. Nevertheless, it was shown that individual behavior plays a crucial role, especially as it can exert a powerful social influence and thus lay the foundation for systemic change.

Moreover, it became clear that the climate crisis is not just a one-off disruption, but a process that requires continuous and fundamental change. Psychologically speaking, this means breaking with patterns or world views and behaving in a way that one may never have done before.

One of the most important aspects to keep in mind is the inclusion of people’s experiences as effective reference points for future sustainability campaigns. A major obstacle to environmentally friendly behavior may be the separate perception of people and nature. The pandemic has shown that humans, as biological beings, are extremely dependent on nature.

Finally, on an individual and societal level, the pandemic has helped to overcome the lack of imagination that change is possible. It clearly showed that tomorrow does not necessarily have to be like today. This can continuously serve booster (collective) self-efficacy.

Summary

In summary, this paper showed that environmental psychology provides important theoretical background on crucial influencing factors and can thus help to promote environmentally friendly behavior after the pandemic. On the way to fight human-induced climate change, it is important to include the presented psychological mechanisms, which lie at the root of it, in future sustainability debates. 

Acknowledgement

The authors would like to thank Prof. Dr: Gerd Michelsen, Institute for Environmental Communication, UNESCO Chair HESD for years of support for the above seminar series at the Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany.

This article was originally published in The European Financial Review 23 February 2022. It can be accessed here: https://www.europeanfinancialreview.com/psychological-crucial-factors-of-sustainable-behavior-within-and-after-the-pandemic/

About the Authors

Nadine KarnetzkeNadine Karnetzke holds two bachelor’s degrees in cultural studies and psychology from Leuphana University Lüneburg. In her work, she promotes interdisciplinary exchange. As a psychological consultant, she supports individuals and teams. She is now studying in the interdisciplinary Master’s programme in Sustainability Science at Leuphana University Lüneburg.

Michael Palocz-AndresenMichael Palocz-Andresen has been working as a full professor for Sustainable Mobility since 2018, supported by the DAAD at the TEC Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores in Mexico. He became a full professor at the University West Hungary till 2017. Currently, he is a guest professor at the TU Budapest, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, and at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He is a Humboldt scientist and instructor of the SAE International in the USA.

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