As commercial real estate professionals we are all familiar with the concept of green building, designing a building to consume less natural resources and provide a healthier atmosphere for occupants and the community. But the wild card has always been the building occupants – their attitudes, reactions, and daily habits shape the ultimate performance of a building, even if it’s engineered to the highest standards.
Christie Manning, a professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College, with assistance from UST Psychology Professor Elise Amel conducted studies funded by the MnPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) to determine exactly what factors influence whether or not individuals choose sustainable behaviors (recycling, reducing energy consumption, biking to work, etc.)
What she found is that social cues play an important role in our emotional responses, which in turn dictate whether or not we will perform a specific behavior. In other words, even though we may rationalize a decision one way (“Sure, I think recycling is important so that we can use less natural resources”), ultimately our behavior may not reflect that rationale (“I don’t want to wander around this convention hall with my Coke can searching for a recycling receptacle”).
Manning explains that there are two routes to behavior change: increasing the internal motivation of the person and changing the situational circumstances. While it is more difficult to drive internal motivation, it is easy to create situations in which sustainable behavior has few barriers and becomes the “default”. When sustainable behaviors become the default, we are no longer concerned about the social implications (“What will my boss think about my ‘helmet hair’?”)
In order to create a permanent change in behavior, the following must occur:
1. Change social norms
2. Reduce feelings of incompetence
3. Make hidden information visible
4. Change the default
For example, in a building, recycling bins may be hidden from view while the trash dumpster may be easily accessible. Or, new residents/tenants may not understand what types of recyclables should be placed in which containers. To minimize feelings of incompetence, clear labeling is a first step. Some buildings have created 3-D recycling displays of actual used containers to demonstrate which containers go where, eliminating any confusion. Making hidden information visible also reduces misunderstanding and inconvenience; the easier and more transparent a process is, the more quickly it will be adopted by the majority of occupants, resulting in a change of the “default” and social norms.
Utility usage is another great example. Utility providers have experimented with various types of billing and how displaying comparable buildings or “neighbors” usage affects energy consumption. When a building owner is using more energy than her neighbors and this is displayed graphically on the utility bill, the owner will have a tendency to reduce consumption for the next billing cycle. It becomes a feedback loop to reduce usage to the social norm. This process partially explains growth in the number of LEED certifications. Once LEED reached a certain momentum a few years back, it became unstoppable. No owner/developer wants to be “the bad guy” with no LEED buildings.
While social approval is a strong motivator, negative judgment by others can also inhibit sustainable behaviors. For example, in the utility experiment above, one company gave customers either a smiley face or a frown face on their bill, based on their under or over-consumption. Smiley face receivers responded well and continued their efficient behavior, while the company received many angry calls from customers with a frown face on their bill!
In the design of buildings, the four elements of behavior change can be applied to increase healthy behaviors such as using the stairs instead of the elevator. Not only should stairs be designed to be visible and easily accessible, clear signage directing building occupants to the stairs helps to prevent any possible confusion. The easier the behavior is to perform, the more building occupants will do it, hence changing the default and social norms. Positive reinforcement engages building occupants to an even greater extent. For example, a glow in the dark sign that reminds bathroom users to turn off the lights not only reminds users but motivates them with a visible, fun “reward” for their sustainable behavior.
In order to elicit positive emotional responses, Dr. Manning cautions against the use of broad terms like “environment” or “environmentalist”. People respond more positively to specific terms like protecting the “air we breathe” and the “water we drink”. In cases regarding land development, groups referred to as “concerned citizens” elicit a perception as being more professional than “environmentalists”. “It’s important to know your audience,” states Dr. Manning. “When you say the word environment, it creates a sense of disconnection. It doesn’t feel relevant. It feels like a luxury. But people do care about their food, their water, their air, and their climate and they want to take steps to protect them.”
Tags: Christie Manning, Elise Amel, encouraging sustainable behavior, green building behavior, green building occupants, green building study, LEED, MNPCA, psychology of leed buildings, psychology of sustainability, sustainable behavior, sustainable behavior study, tenants in green buildings, the psychology of sustainable behavior