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Climate News - April 2023


by Hadley Kunz, M.Ed., BCBA, and Rebecca Edgecumbe M.A., BCBA

This week, we were reminded of the urgency of the climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent Sixth Assessment Report (AR6)underscores the urgent need for societies and groups to make significant changes to reduce carbon. 

 To accelerate change, what can we do to motivate groups to take action on climate and maintain pro-environmental behavior changes over time? Behavior analysts and other behavioral scientists have identified three tools that can help: group contingencies, block leaders, and community interventions.

 What are Group Contingencies?

A group contingency is a behavior analytic tool that can be implemented with multiple people at the same time as a reward system. Often applied in a classroom setting, all group contingencies share the same basic elements:

  1. Target population- the person(s) included in the group contingency. 
  2. Target behavior goal- the behavior selected for change. The behavior needs to be observable/measurable and clearly defined. 
  3. Reinforcer- a “reward” that the target population is willing to work for. This can vary across the target population, or it can be the same.
  4. Measurement tool/method- how the target behavior will be measured in order to determine if criteria is met.
  5. Timeline- the duration of the group contingency. 
  6. Reinforcement delivery- includes where/when/how the reinforcer will be delivered.

 There are three different types of group contingencies: independent, interdependent, and dependent. Consider each of these in the context of the following climate action. An office wants to reduce their carbon emissions by 20%.

  1. Independent- The target population is all working on the same or similar behavior goals, but earning the reward (reinforcement) is individualized. In other words, some members of the target population may earn the reinforcer, while others may not, depending on each individual’s ability to reach criterion. In our example, only those departments whose members meet this goal will earn a 2-hour lunch break on Friday.
  2. Interdependent- The target population must work together in order to achieve their goal. The population must reach criterion as a group in order to earn their reinforcer. In our example, the entire office will earn a 2-hour lunch break on Friday when the total amount of carbon emissions produced by each person is reduced by 20%.
  3. Dependent- Only a few select members of the target population must achieve criterion on their behavior goal in order for the full group to earn the reward (i.e., reinforcement).  In our example, only the Accounting Department must reduce their carbon emissions by 20% for the entire office to earn a 2-hour lunch break on Friday.

 As with most behavior change procedures, there are benefits, drawbacks, and ethical considerations. This intervention is considered generally less time-consuming than focusing on individual climate action, as it can target a whole population of people at once. It can also foster a sense of camaraderie and positive social interactions between peers to achieve a common goal. Ethical considerations must be kept in mind while selecting the type of group contingency and the elements to go with it. For example, a dependent group contingency may be more likely to produce inappropriate peer-to-peer feedback or resentment (Haygeman, 2008). While choosing a target behavior, it’s important to select a behavior that is beneficial to the population selected, and to clearly communicate the reasoning behind the behavior choice. As with any behavioral intervention, consent from the participants is essential.

 Any situation where groups may exist are potential candidates for this type of approach: political, social, environmental, and even sports! A recent study (Amann & Doidge, 2023) explored the effectiveness of a group contingency intervention with sports fans promoting pro-environmental behavior. The target population included European football fans of a local minor league. The target behavior goal was to increase sustainable behavior through specific pro-environmental lifestyle pledges. For each pledge a fan made, their football team earned points, making the identified reinforcer ‘winning’ against other participating teams in the league. The measurement method included a simple tally system, but was then “visualized in a league table that shows fans how much they saved collectively and equates the number to cars taken off the road” (Amann & Doidge, 2023). The timeline matched the league’s game season, and the reinforcement delivery occurred at the end of the season in the form of announcing the league winner. This intervention is an example of an interdependent group contingency, as the entire target population was tasked with the same goal, and the reinforcer went to the team with the highest collective participation. 

 While only a few studies have applied a group-oriented contingency to pro-environmental behavior, a growing body of psychological research on collective action and social norms for sustainable behavior change shares similar elements, as described below.

 What are Collective Actions and Social Norms?

Collective Action is any action taken by a group of people who share a common goal. This may include community groups, clubs, workplace groups and households. As it relates to climate change, this includes groups that take action on climate change by protesting, writing or calling political leaders, volunteering on conservation projects, or working toward a collective climate goal (e.g., the Transition Towns movement of nearly 2000 towns worldwide). It does not take much effort to effect change. Research by Chenowith and Belgioioso (2019) showed that social change can take place with as little as 3.5% of the population engaging in peaceful protest. 

 How do you encourage members of a community to engage in collective climate action? Bamberg et al. (2015) compared different integrative models of collective action and identified four variables that predicted intention to take collective climate action. These variables include:

  • Social Identity - how a person sees themself based on the groups they belong to;
  • Social norms – the accepted standards of social groups;
  • Perceived behavioral control - feeling like you have the ability to do something; and
  • Attitude - how a person thinks or feels about something.


Social norms can be used to increase motivation to take climate action and to address social pressures that may prevent people from doing so. Evidence shows that people are more likely to engage in sustainable behavior if they believe that others in their group do so too. The different types of social norms include:

  • Descriptive norms refer to perceptions of what others do. This includes rules that people follow because they believe this is what other people do. An example of a descriptive norm is American men perceive pro-environmental behavior as more feminine than masculine (Brough et al., 2016; Bennett and Williams, 2011).
  • Injunctive norms refer to rules that people follow because it is what is expected of them.  An example of an injunctive norm is "littering is bad."
  • Positive social norms that show or tell a person what to do are more effective than negative social norms which urge people not to do the opposite. For example, “compost your food waste” is a more effective message than “don’t send food waste to the landfill.” The former statement is better because it informs the individual about the desired behavior, rather than simply telling the person what not to do, leaving them on their own to figure out what to do with food waste.
  • Dynamic social norms, a type of positive social norm, indicate a trend in behavior. It has been shown that dynamic norms can significantly increase the percentage of people who will perform a certain behavior. The key is to use statements demonstrating how behavior is changing over time. For example, “more and more people are choosing hybrid or electric vehicles than ever before.”

 Group interventions are an effective approach for adoption of climate change behaviors. Hopper & Nelson (1991) studied the effectiveness of a block leader approach,where a volunteer from the community informed their neighbors about recycling and provided resources and support. They found that this approach influenced social norms and led to increased recycling behavior. Gillingham and Bollinger (2019) showed that block leaders coupled with "key promoters" (i.e., city leaders acting as influencers) increased solar panel adoption ten-fold.                                                                                                              

Another group intervention, called community interventions, studied by Staats et al. (2004) led to sustained increases in numerous pro-environmental household behaviors. The global initiative was called the EcoTeam program, with 20,000 households having engaged by 2004. The changed pro-environmental behaviors were maintained 2 years after the EcoTeam intervention ended. This intervention consisted of three elements: information, feedback, and social interaction in a group. It was postulated that feedback may lead to change by evoking social and personal norms. Results showed that intention to engage in pro-environmental behavior predicted actual adoption of those behaviors. In addition, the degree of social influence experienced by an individual when participating in the EcoTeam group also predicted changes in behavior. These findings align with Bamberg et al.'s (2015) four variables for collective action outlined above.

When developing strategies to change group behavior, it may be important to consider the influence of different cultural norms and values. In their study on the effect of feedback on energy consumption, Midden et al. (2011) conceived of energy conservation as a group phenomenon engaged in by members of a household or office building. The researchers compared the effectiveness of group feedback and individual comparative feedback on energy conservation between two different cultural groups; a group in the Netherlands, the other in Japan. Results indicated that individual comparative feedback was more effective with the Dutch group, while group feedback was more effective with the Japanese group. The authors noted cultural differences between the two groups as an influencing variable, with Dutch society being individualistic, and Japanese society being collectivist. 

Help Accelerate Collective Action Now

It is critically important to accelerate action now to address our global climate crisis, scaling up our efforts to make a bigger impact. What can you do? Think of the groups you already belong to and consider how those groups can take action on climate change. Start a conservation group with your co-workers, become a block leader and help your neighbors increase their pro-environmental behavior, or join a local environmental group and participate in their collective action efforts. Consider applying the tools and techniques listed here, including group contingencies and rewards, positive and dynamic social norms, and effective feedback. The time to act is now. Together we CAN make a difference.


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