UX Planet: How Can Psychology Save the Planet? Bringing Behavior Change Science to Conservation

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Did you know that the palm oil found in many of our lotions and cosmetics comes from the natural habitat of orangutans? Harvesting the oil damages their habitats and puts the animals at risk. Or that about a third of the calories grown in the world go to waste? Or that the equivalent of one dump truck of plastic enters the ocean ever minute? I didn’t, but the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and others are actively tackling these issues. These are all thorny, complex problems that require sustained behavior change to solve. Yet, historically, very little behavior change science — and even less behavior change design theory — has been applied to conservation efforts.

That’s starting to change, thanks to work by the WWF, National Geographic, and others who recognize the need to apply the science of psychology to their efforts to save the planet. I had the honor of participating in the WWF’s annual Fuller Symposium on December 4–5 in Washington DC. The 2017 theme was “The Nature of Change: The Science of Influencing Behavior.” Speakers included experts in both social and environmental sciences, so the audience heard about theories of behavior change alongside case studies bringing those same theories to life.

In my presentation, I covered the psychology of motivation and the importance of respecting people’s autonomy — their ability to make meaningful choices for themselves — in designing behavior change interventions. I used the example of smoking cessation in the United States to show how behavior change tactics can be applied at the individual, group, and societal level in a way that preserves autonomy and yields meaningful results.

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By: Amy Bucher

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