Go to:Introduction to the Instructor Resources
Psychology Subdisciplines:History and Systems
As students learn about behaviorism, instructors can include information about B. F. Skinner's take on the environmental crisis. In a 1982 address to the American Psychological Association (published in 1987), Skinner criticized efforts of environmental (and other) social activist groups as not consistent with operant learning principles in that they focus on inspiring guilt, fear, and shame to motivate greener behaviors, instead of helping individuals see the potentially reinforcing consequences of greener lifestyles. Environmental advocates and educators commonly find that one of the barriers to people changing their behavior in a sustainable direction is the perception that being green requires sacrifice and discomfort. Simplicity is perceived as lack, less resource intensive is seen as primitive. Ask students to consider what reinforcers (both positive and negative) are potentially present in greener lifestyles. For example, the boost in self-esteem that comes from feeling like one is doing the right thing could be positively reinforcing while the reduction of stress that comes with adopting a simpler lifestyle could be negatively reinforcing.
Since the early days of the " green decade" of the 1970s, researchers have tested whether altering the contingencies associated with environmentally impactful behaviors is a successful strategy for changing those behaviors. For example, rewards have been shown to increase (at least temporarily) earth friendly behaviors such as riding public transportation (Everett, 1981) and cleaning up litter (e. g., Casey & Lloyd, 1977). Other successful behaviorally-based techniques include providing positive reinforcement in the form of recognition for individuals who effectively alter their behavior or who promise to make changes, altering antecedent stimuli by providing personalized information to guide conservation efforts, and providing reinforcing feedback on the results of an individual’ s efforts (for reviews of the application of behavioral principles, see De Young, 1993; Geller, 1986; Vining & Ebreo, 2002; Winter & Koger, 2004). In the long run, however, behaviorally-based interventions are costly and tend not to create enduring behavioral change (Geller, 2002). Ask students to consider how incentives for environmentally-friendly behavior may ultimately undermine instrinsic motivation stemming from proenvironmental values (e. g., Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).
Biologically we are predisposed to learn some behaviors more easily than others. Babies do not have generally have much trouble learning to eat, talk, and walk because these are behaviors that are fundamental to our survival. One could argue that living sustainably is also fundamental to the survival of our species, but many of our habitual behaviors are inconsistent with sustainable living. Is this because some behaviors that were adaptive for our stone-age ancestors are not well-matched to today's context? Is it because the behaviors that we will need to adopt for a sustainable future would have been maladaptive for our stone age ancestors? Is it because the immediate gratification we receive for nonsustainable behaviors is more salient than the negative consequences that we (or future generations) will eventually face for that behavior? This topic is likely to generate a lively discussion among students.CLASS ACTIVITIES
After talking about Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, and Social Learning theories, have students break into small groups to brainstorm about how to apply each of these theories to learning a proenvironmental behavior such as recycling, but it could be any proenvironmental behavior (e. g, riding a bike instead of driving). Students are to use relevant psychological terms (e. g., positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment) to describe their proposed interventions, and then they are to develop a research project to assess whether their intervention has been effective. Thus, the activity applies learning theories and research methods to conservation issues. Students are able to understand why and how certain interventions (e. g., the cartoon Captain Planet and the Planeteers) could work. It is a super tool for catching gaps in student understanding of these learning theories. (contributed by Elise Amel)
B. F. Skinner titled his 1948 utopian novel about a world based on behaviorist priniciples, Walden Two, after transcendentalist nature writer Henry David Thoreau's (1854) Walden; or, Life in the Woods , an autobiographical account of his two-year experiment in " simple living. " Have students visit the website of the intentional " Walden Two community, " Los Horcones in Sonora, Mexico.
Ask students to write a short paper reflecting on their experiences in and with nonhuman nature in very early childhood. Most will report nature fascination and will remember spending hours outside oblivious to weather conditions, light levels, or " threats" in the environment. Ask how many recall messages like the following:
How many students were threatened with punishing consequences if they did not keep their distance from nature? How many recall modeling of nature-aversion from their parents (e. g., fear or disgust at the sight of a rodent or spider, killing of a nonvenomous snake simply because it was in human territory, liberal use of bug spray and other pesticides)? Ask students to consider these experiences in terms of operant learning. Ask them whether they believe it is possible, and what they think it would take, to relearn how to relate to nonhuman nature as they did when they were young children.MULTIMEDIA RESOURCES
Winter, D. D. & Koger, S. M. (2004). Behavioral psychology. InThe psychology of environmental problems (2nd ed., pp. 87-120). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.References Cited In This Section
Casey, L., & Lloyd, M. (1977). Cost and effectiveness of litter removal procedures in an amusement park. Environment and Behavior, ., 535-546.
De Young, R. (1993). Changing behavior and making it stick: The conceptualization and management of conservation behavior. Environment and Behavior, 25, 485-505.
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.
Everett, P. B. (1981). Reinforcement theory strategies for modifying transit ridership. Human Behavior & Environment: Advances in Theory & Research, 5, 63-84.
Geller, E. S. (1986). Prevention of environmental problems. In B. A. Edelstein & L. Michelson (Eds.), Handbook of Prevention (pp. 361-383). New York: Plenum Press.
Geller, E. S. (2002). The challenge of increasing proenvironmental behavior. In R. B. Bechtel & A.
Churchman (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology (pp. 525-540). New York: Wiley.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two. New York: Macmillan.
Skinner, B. F. (1987). Upon further reflection. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
Vining, J., & Ebreo, A. (2002). Emerging theoretical and methodological perspectives on conservation behavior. In R. B. Bechtel & A. Churchman (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology (pp. 541-558). New York: Wiley.
Winter, D. D., & Koger, S.M. (2004). The psychology of environmental problems (2nd ed.) . Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.