What Behavior Change for Sustainability and Pandemic Survival Have In Common

Last week I was the inaugural guest on Sustainable UX‘s live podcast series, run by my friend and colleague James Christie. Initially the discussion was intended to be a bit of a book promo with discussion about how Engaged applies to sustainability behaviors. But in between scheduling and the event date, a global pandemic broke out, and well, let’s just say I’ve found it makes it hard for me to focus on much else. So we decided to talk about it.

Ultimately, I think the same psychological phenomena that make it hard for people to take action now to slow climate change are at play in their reluctance to stem the spread of coronavirus. When I was writing my talk,  I had just witnessed the double whammy of a Boston Globe front page all about rising infection rates and death tolls:Front page of the Boston Globe newspaper on March 15, 2020

And media photos of people queued tightly outside South Boston bars to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day after the traditional parade was cancelled for safety reasons:

This juxtaposition was incredibly frustrating to see. Why were so many people ignoring the information we had from other countries about the spread of coronavirus and risking infection?

I think about self-determination theory and the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In some respects, being told to stay at home under these circumstances violates those needs hardcore for many people. Think about it: You haven’t known anyone personally affected by the virus. Its long incubation period (up to 2 weeks) makes it hard to connect your behaviors now to its appearance later. You’ve really been looking forward to getting out this weekend and you’re already disappointed that the parade was cancelled. And well, you just don’t like being told what to do (autonomy). You can’t stop the virus singlehandedly (competence), you’re lonely alone at home (relatedness), and so dammit, you’re going out.

Basic psychological needs include autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and are precursors of motivation

There are clear parallels to people’s slow action to stem climate change. With sustainability behaviors, people can feel like they’re being asked to sacrifice now (driving, flying, eating red meat, using disposable goods) but know they won’t see tangible results for months, years, or decades. In fact, with both sustainability and public health, positive results can mean no change (no worsening pollution, no increases in infection), which doesn’t feel very satisfying. It becomes very easy to focus on enjoying today over protecting tomorrow.

Historical situations like tobacco regulation have shown us that people can change their behavior when it poses a public threat, and ultimately wind up satisfied in the new normal. It took state bans on smoking in public establishments and rising cigarette taxes to really bring the smoking rate down. I remember how irritated some people were when those state bans were implemented (I lived in both MA and MI when they went smoke-free so got to experience it twice). If you smoked, it was a huge inconvenience to be made to go outside. And now it’s the way things are, and while I’m sure some smokers still dislike it, the data also suggests there are some smokers who quit because of the change.

My focus on motivation means that I normally want to empower people to select goals that are meaningful to them, even when they’re not the goals that an expert might choose for them. My standing exception to this is when their behaviors are likely to harm others. Not practicing social distancing (or its superior cousin, staying at home) in the time of coronavirus is one such behavior.

Unfortunately the timeline of coronavirus is going to make the threat feel very real very fast, unlike climate change. People are already finding ways to fulfill their basic psychological needs within the new public health constraints to slow viral spread:

  • Making choices about how to spend their time at home
  • Finding ways to contribute to their community by sewing masks, donating money, or ordering takeout from the mom-and-pop restaurant down the street
  • Using technology to connect with friends (and in some cases re-connect with faraway loved ones)

People will adjust because that’s what we do. And eventually, when coronavirus is no longer such an imminent threat to society because we’ve found the vaccines and the treatments (and I believe these discoveries are fast coming), we have two tasks ahead of us.

The first is to help repair the psychological, economic, and social damage the coronavirus has caused. Just because people adjust doesn’t meant this time won’t leave scars. The Lancet just published a paper about the psychological effects of quarantine that noted that one thing we need to do is tell stories that make sense of people’s sacrifices. Magnifying lives saved, families protected, scientific advances secured can all help people make retroactive sense of the difficulties they experienced. It will also be important to advocate for policies with elected officials that help repair the economic damage the societal shutdowns will have–and I’ll tip my hand here and say I’m much more worried about our bartenders and hairdressers and janitors than the cruise lines.

Map of Boston at 7pm on a weekday showing no traffic jamsThe second task is protecting the positives that come from this situation. We’re seeing rapid improvements in air quality across the globe thanks to swift reductions in traffic. Although I was sad to see the stories about swans in Venice’s canals was a hoax, the waters have dramatically cleared since boat traffic ground to a halt. When we eventually return back to a semblance of normalcy, how can we protect some of these gains in air and water quality? How can we hold on to some of the new positive behaviors we’ll adopt in quarantine, like reaching out to faraway loved ones and finding ways to use technology inclusively?

Resources Mentioned in the Talk

If you want to watch a video of the talk, you can find it on YouTube.