2 Key Barriers to Success in Sustainability Behavior Projects

Author: Stein Jongerius


 72% of Dutch people are concerned about climate change. For over 80% of these people, even a pandemic and subsequent economic downturn has not changed this (1). From this, we can see that people genuinely care about climate change. However, there is often a difference between what people say and what they actually do. This is called the “attitude-behavior gap” in social sciences. In this post, we’re going to digest two of the barriers (2) that prevent our thoughts from turning into action: “Environmental Numbness” and “Social Norms.”

Environmental Numbness 


Everyday life can be hectic, and many things command our attention: smartphones, billboards, and traffic - to name a few. Our brains are constantly figuring out what to attend to: what is important and warrants our attention, and what does not. For instance, small gradual changes over time in climate or air quality are hard to perceive and thus our brain prioritizes more immediate pressing matters. In other words: most of the time the majority of us are not actively thinking about climate change, and understandably so. 

An effective way of overcoming this barrier is by making environmental impacts tangible and visible. A great example of this in the context of taking  shorter showers is the Amphiro. Next to giving direct feedback through a timer, it features the image of a polar bear, and as the shower goes on, the habitat of the polar bear declines. This causes our busy brains to become more aware of the environmental consequences of our specific actions. We’ve tested this device in a real world setting and found an average 17% reduction in shower duration!

Social Norms: A Double Edged-Sword

We are inherently social creatures and look towards other people for guidance on our own behavior. We model our behaviour and determine what is proper conduct based on what we observe from others. This can present a barrier to acting more green, if the norm doesn’t support these environmentally friendly behaviors. However, it can also motivate us to behave in an environmentally friendly way, if the norm supports that. 


A concrete example of using social norms to increase sustainable behaviours are so called “social comparisons'' in home energy monitors. In these comparisons your own consumption is compared to the consumption of others similar to you, often neighbours or people who live in the same area. This works great for people who over-consume in comparison to others. Over-consumers will reduce their consumption in order to adhere to the norm. However, for under-consumers, social norms might actually have the opposite effect and their consumption might increase in reaction to the norm. A way of preventing this effect is to be smart about when and how you use social norms. For instance, in the case of residential energy management, it’s better to only communicate the norm to people who over-consume. If this is not possible or desirable, one could add an “injunctive norm” which indicates how others think you should behave in addition to communicating how others actually behave. So far, most home energy monitors do not (yet) differentiate between high and low users in the context of social comparisons. We think there is a big opportunity there - so if you are an innovator or have heard of one - get in touch with us at anke@innovationlighthouse.org!

Example of using injunctive norms for someone who does not overconsume (3): 



1. https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/publicaties/2018/10/15/flitspeiling-over-hoofdlijnen-van-het-klimaatakkoord 

2. Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American psychologist, 66(4), 290.

3. van Dam, S. S., Bakker, C. A., & Van Hal, J. D. M. (2010). Home energy monitors: impact over the medium-term. Building Research & Information, 38(5), 458-469.