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Social norms, behavior influence environmental policy

female scientist standing in front of digital video screen
February 14, 2013

A research team led by ASU senior sustainability scientist Ann Kinzig argues for a novel approach to climate change alleviation: target public values and behavior.

Kinzig, chief research strategist for ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and a professor at ASU’s School of Life Sciences, urges policymakers to alter laws and regulations, such as recycling mandates and energy restrictions, based on social values and the associated behaviors.

In a recent article in the journal Bioscience, the team shares findings that pro-environmental behaviors (e.g., recycling and water conservation) can influence pro-environmental values, and that the interaction also works in reverse.

“Often we believe that we behave in a certain way because we hold particular values and that is certainly true,” Kinzig says. “But our values may also shift based on our behaviors. We may initially engage in recycling, for instance, because of an economic incentive, but the repeated act of recycling may create a value for recycling.”

Simply put, the report states that if policy dictates a pro-environment behavior, the repeated act of that behavior will become second nature – and even part of a value system – for individuals required to do it. The researchers argue that behavioral change may be the tipping point for real climate change mitigation and one step closer to a sustainable future.

Trained in physics, Kinzig’s expertise lies in ecology, biodiversity, ecosystem economics, and conservation. She leads the Sustainability Scientist workgroups at the Global Institute of Sustainability and is the co-director of the ecoSERVICES group in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Kinzig’s research balances the fine line between social sciences and life sciences, connecting human dynamics with those of the natural world.

Co-authors include Nobel Prize winners Kenneth Arrow and the late Elinor Ostrom, named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2012 and the founding director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity.

Additional co-authors include: Paul R. Ehrlich, Stanford University; Lee J. Alston, University of Colorado at Boulder; Scott Barrett, Columbia University; Timothy G. Buchman, Emory University School of Medicine; Gretchen C. Daily, Stanford University; Bruce Levin, Emory University; Simon Levin, Princeton University; Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University; and Donald Saari, University of California Irvine.

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Media contact:
Tara Mogan
Senior Manager, Strategic Marketing and Communications
Global Institute of Sustainability