The Azimuth Project
Psychology of sustainability



Psychology may play a key role in figuring out how to effectively promote sustainable lifestyles. Why don’t politicians take action? Because people don’t demand it. Why don’t people demand it? Here psychology comes in.


See for example:

David Uzzell of the University of Surrey was made the UK’s first Professor of Environmental Psychology in 2000. He recently presented the 2010 British Academy/British Psychological Society annual lecture, entitled “Psychology and Climate Change: collective solutions to a global problem”. In the above blog he says:

Work over the past 15 years or so has shown that people think the environment is worse the further away it is from them. We’ve seen the same results in Britain, Slovakia, Australia, and Ireland. We’ve done it with children, with urban people, rural people. We consistently get the same results. The problem - both cause and effect - is always somewhere else.

We’ve also found that people think the problems will be worse in the future. And when we ask what the causes of the environmental problems are we get interesting results. If you ask people to rank causes, you find the highest scores for ‘inaction by government’ or the ‘actions of industries’. You also see the ‘industrialisation of developing countries’, the ‘poverty of developing countries’, and ‘overpopulation’ as ranking highly. Overall, what you see is a tendency to distance the causes from themselves.

Rejecting climate change as a problem is, in a way, a coping strategy. Another aspect is that recent events, such as the UEA emails affair, the failure of COP15 at Copenhagen etc, give people a convenient reason to discount climate change as a threat. It gives them a permission to deny.

We shouldn’t be surprised that people see climate change as remote and impersonal to them. We shouldn’t be talking about how our lives will become somehow poorer through climate change, but instead be talking about it could help us to become healthier, happier and enable us to live in a better environment.

Ultimately, we have to present alternatives and opportunities. If there is no other genuine option than to drive your car, then people will continue to drive. We know as psychologists that people are resistant to change so we must address this.

Message and Framing

See also the paper by Andy Pitman, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and Ben Newell, senior lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of New South Wales. Here is a table from Pitman identifying factors that affects judgment:


Sample is the part of information that people use to make their conclusions.In table two we see the framing actions an information provider can use:


Understanding and Consensus

Here in the third table by Pitman concerning understanding the solution:


Finally they have a table for factors that might speedup or slowdown consensus building:



  • Leo Hickman, What psychology can teach us about our response to climate change, Environment Blog,, September 23, 2010.

  • Andy Pitman and Ben Newell, The psychology of global warming: improving the fit between the science and the message, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (2010), 1003-1014.

  • The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators and the Interested Public by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (free online). This guide was prepared by a group of psychologists at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University: it’s an overview of a wide variety of peer-reviewed work examining several facets of the psychology of climate change communication.

  • Gerd Gigerenzer, Reckoning with Risk: Learning to Live with Uncertainty (U.S. title: Calculated Risks), Penguin. Gigerenzer is the Director of the Adaptive Behavior and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He works on risk communication and this book explains his work on how to understand and present statistical information.

  • Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, Penguin. Thaler, an economist, and Sunstein, a lawyer, are both based at the University of Chicago. They work on the intersection of psychology, economics, and law. This book studies how an appropriate “choice architecture” can improve our decision making.

  • Cass Sunstein, Risk and Reason, Cambridge University Press. This examines how reasoning about risk through a cost-benefit analysis can improve risk regulation, with a particular focus on environmental risks.

  • B. Fischhoff, A. Bostrom, and C. J. Atman, Risk Communication: A Mental Models Approach, Cambridge University Press. A “field guide” to the use of the mental models approach to risk communication with an in-depth discussion of global warming and climate change. The authors are experts in public policy, psychology, and engineering.

  • Ben R. Newell, David A. Lagnado, and David R. Shanks, Straight Choices: The Psychology of Decision Making, Psychology Press. This is a textbook introducing many of the key findings in the psychology of judgment and decision making. The authors are all psychologists and have published on cognitive psychology including papers on learning, memory, causal and probabilistic reasoning, and decision making.

  • John Timmer, Politics and self-confidence trump education on climate change, Ars Technica website.

A brief report of some analyses of survey responses regarding issues including climate change and some patterns detected in the repsonses.

In case scientists feel considering psychology is ‘inappropriate’ or ‘problematic’, it’s worth bearing in mind that psychology is extensively used elsewhere, eg, supermarkets are laid out to maximise the likelihood of ‘impulse’ purchases (with the attendant environmental impacts of that consumption), as outlined in Derbyshire.

As such, it is important to understand how to present accurate information in a way which has as much psychological appeal as the output from other outlets. The UK based “sustainability communications agency” Futerra offers a guide, Sell The Sizzle: We believe that climate action is no longer a scientist’s job; it’s now a salesman’s job. You must get out there and sell the solutions we already have. And if you’ve ever worked in sales, then you know how hard that is.

That’s where the idea for this guide came from. As the ultimate salesman Elmer Wheeler taught in the 1950’s the big secret to selling is that you don’t sell the sausage – you sell the sizzle. And no, we don’t mean the sizzle of climateinduced heat stress; we mean the desirable, tempting and enticing sounds and aroma that convince you to eat what is basically a dead pig. That’s the heart of the salesman’s art.

Also see

category: sustainability