The New Green Normal

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Photo Credit: Jonathan Rausseo

Normative behaviour is a very strange beast. It is perhaps even the ‘holy grail’ of environmental psychology. It is thought that with the right strategy, normative behavior could save the planet. Dramatic pause…..
Okay, maybe this statement means nothing to you right now but give me a moment and maybe I can give this statement some impact.

First we need to lay out some ground rules; some guiding principles that will help us move through this conversation quicker. You will have to take these on faith but feel free to explore them in detail later.

  1. Everyone just wants to belong. Maybe not to the mainstream, but to something that’s for sure.
    There are very few actual loners. Most people may actually associate some form of subculture. Think about it; geeks hang out with geeks, jocks hang out with jocks, goth hang out with goth, and gleeks hang out with gleeks. All this is not to say that there isn’t inter-click mixing,

  2. In the absence of direct peers, people will follow the heard
    This doesn’t mean that everyone is cattle, it is just that most people don’t want to stick out so they go with the flow. This is only really untrue when you are with a group of friends that, together, can act as a collective counter balance. For example, if you are walking down the street and a homeless person falls over, completely drunk, and nobody does anything about it… odds are you won’t either. Unless two of your friends rush over to help, then you are more likely to do something.

  3. The things you find weird are usually part of a shared experience that has been conditioned into you by society.
    It’s true. Boys used to wear pink because it was a stronger colour; up until the 70’s, at which point pink became for girls. In the Middle East, men commonly hold hands while walking down the street as a sign of friendship. In China you can burp after a meal to show that you are satisfied. In Vietman it is important that everyone knows your marital status. If all this seems weird to you, that could be because you are weird.

Now if you are on an empty bus and all the seats are unoccupied, how would you feel if another person got on the bus and sat right beside you? Would you feel strange? Have you ever thought about why that is? Well, what if that feeling of awkwardness could be harnessed for good?

In the world of psychology there is something called normative behaviour. People tend to do the things that they think are normal; so if you could change a behaviour so that people thought it was normal... everyone would do it. There are already many examples in your life that lean both ways. Only girls wear dresses – hitting people is inappropriate - Canadians like Hockey – pick up litter on the ground - if somebody sneezes you say “bless you”.

Environmental psychologists have been tinkering around with the idea of establishing normative standards for environmentalism. Imagine if the default setting for people was to be green. The most recent example in our society is the move to charge money for plastic bags. In a couple of years people will stop expecting that plastic bags should be free.

At the University of Ottawa campus there is talk of trying to use some normative behaviour for disposable dishware. Instead of getting a discount for bringing a reusable mug, you would be charged a tax for not bringing a mug. The cost would turn out to be the exact same as it is today but there would be a very important change... the word tax is introduced. Even though you would be paying the same price, you instinctively know that paying taxes is bad and so you change your behaviour in order to not ‘pay the tax’.

So what do you think? Are there any other examples of things on campus that you think we could change to create a new green behaviour? Do you think that changing the pricing structure of disposable items could work?


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