Climate Corner: From the Center for Behavior and Climate
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Climate Nudges & College: Behavior Change for Students
by Elli Gurguliatos, Guest Columnist
I'm a college student. I know that many college students, including myself, worry about the future of climate change. But what can we do about it now? The nearly twenty-million college and university students in the United States and over two hundred million students worldwide can play an enormous role in fighting the climate crisis. With the sheer number of students alone, the opportunity for behavior-based approaches to increase climate action has immense potential for this demographic. Although community living, financial status, and institutional configurations provide barriers to a college student's influence on their pro-climate behaviors, the opportunities to apply behavioral nudges to this group are great and can create a shift in the trajectory of the climate crisis.
The Little Book of Green Nudges (LBGN) is a practical guide by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to help university students and staff implement sustainability measures at their schools with behavioral nudges. UNEP defines these nudges as "gentle and positive persuasions based on the psychology of decision making, in which the more sustainable, pro-environmental choice becomes the easiest and default option," (UNEP, 2020). Humans often use mental shortcuts in decision-making (Kahneman, 2011). While this tendency can lead to cognitive biases, it can also lead to desired behaviors as well through nudges. Nudges alter the choice architecture around a particular behavior to encourage the behavior that is preferred.
The Little Book of Green Nudges was showcased in action during the UN’s 2022 Behavioural Science Week, where students from colleges and universities across the globe spoke to its effectiveness in creating behavioral change. For example, at Miranda House College in India, an initiative to provide students with biodegradable Kulhad cups reduced waste while supporting local artisans. In young people, the pressure to do the most socially acceptable course of action plays a significant role in influencing their behavior, as does the urge to make the easiest choice through the path of least resistance. Thus, using nudges can become a prime pathway to influence behavior in residential college communities.
College students often take the path of least resistance within their daily routine. As students already have too much to do on any given day, choices made for them reduce their decision-making stress and enable them to glide through their busy schedules more efficiently. For many students, the college experience is the first time they are on their own. When the comfort and familiarity of family life are stripped away and replaced with a community-based lifestyle, the student bears the pressure to direct their own routines and behaviors. Behavioral nudges are a powerful tool in this environment, as the student can rely on the norms and behaviors that nudges establish, relieving stress. For example, the Little Book of Green Nudges discusses the dining hall as a prominent place for nudges to work their magic. In a traditional family atmosphere, the student generally eats what's provided. However, in a dining hall setting, students can choose their own meal among various options. Nudges can aid the students in their decision-making while promoting environmentally friendly behaviors, such as a plant-based diet. Plant-based eating has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than a meat-centric diet (Edenbrandt et al., 2021). Thus, if the university dining staff make the plant-based choice the default option while still providing alternative choices, the nudge gently guides the student to a more sustainable alternative and avoids the pressure that overwhelming options create – benefiting both the student and the environment.
Community living poses challenges but also opportunities for reducing one's environmental impact. In a typical residence hall, a student shares bathrooms, kitchens, and lounge areas with others. In this setting, issues such as water usage or electricity consumption are less individual and make the student feel less responsible for their consumption – an example of the tragedy of the commons. Students who do not pay a monthly water or electricity bill feel less connected to their consumption. However, nudges can influence a student's behavior by making them feel more aware of the impacts of their choices and giving them a sense of agency (i.e., increasing their response efficacy). For example, the LBGN discusses how timers on communal sinks can reduce water usage in dorm buildings. This nudge encourages residents to be aware of their consumption and makes it easier to make the environmentally-friendly choice to use less water.
Behavioral nudges become a particularly potent tool when social norms significantly influence behavior, such as for this age group. Because young people face peer pressure daily, social influence can be leveraged for good. Why not make the status quo the more environmentally-friendly option? Nudges accommodate pro-environmental behaviors on campuses, making them easier to achieve. For example, bike-share programs with bike repair stations make the switch from driving easy for students. If riding one's bike around campus is easy to do, then bike riding can become a social norm of the campus culture, influencing other students to ride their bikes, too. Additionally, social relationships – particularly charismatic student leaders – can effect behavior change. Student leaders can implement conversations with peers about sustainability, dynamic social norms, and environmental accountability to lead to social change and make sustainable behaviors the standard on campus.
Critics of nudges note that they give a false impression of significant change being made, which lessens the appeal of more aggressive climate policies (Hagmann et al., 2019), perhaps due to motivated reasoning. (The authors showed that single action bias was not a factor here.) However, for college students who are largely not in control of their living circumstances anyway and remain confined by community-living conditions and standards set by their institution, nudges help promote pro-climate behaviors. Students tend to be very involved in climate activism; however, they are not the demographic in a position to affect larger pro-climate actions, such as retrofitting a home for energy efficiency, switching to green energy, or installing solar panels. Their main concerns are their studies. Nudges allow students to fight climate change at the appropriate scale for their current life stage and set them up for success as they form habits that will continue into adulthood. As long as nudges are presented as important but not sufficient climate actions (Maki, 2019), nudges are an outstanding way to implement pro-environmental behaviors in college and university students, thanks to the ease of incorporating them into their daily routines and the power of peer pressure in college students' social relationships.
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