Behavior Analysis and Environmental Protection: Accomplishments and Potential for More

Article excerpt


The contributions and merits of an applied behavior analysis approach to encouraging proenvironment behavior are reviewed, along with a discussion of ways behavioral science can play a greater role in protecting the environment. After presenting the most serious threats to the earth's environment, the targets, settings and techniques of the behavioral intervention literature are reviewed. It is argued that behavior analysis can play a greater role in solving environmental problems through (a) reexamination and expansion of intervention targets, (b) increased focus on long-term maintenance of pro-environment behavior, and (c) more effective dissemination of intervention strategies and research findings.

Key words: environment, environmental protection, conservation, pro-environment behavior, recycling

In 1970 the first Earth Day served as an activator for behavior analysts to embark on a new challenge. We were reminded that human behavior causes serious damage to the earth's environment and threatens the future of humans and other species. If human behavior is the problem, behavior analysis can offer the technological solutions for turning things around. Behavioral scientists answered the call, and applications of behavior analysis to protect the environment blossomed during the 1970s. During that decade, numerous studies demonstrated the effectiveness of behavioral technology in decreasing environmentally destructive behaviors such as littering, excessive vehicle use, and wasteful consumption of home energy and water. Other field studies focused on increasing pro-environmental behaviors such as carpooling, recycling, litter pick-up, and increasing the use of mass transit (see reviews by Cone & Hayes 1980 and Geller, Winett, & Everett, 1982).

Unfortunately, the field that seemed so fruitful and full of promise for crucial social change peaked during the late 1970s and early 1980s. A review of behavioral interventions to preserve the environment during the 1980s revealed 54 published studies of behavior-based interventions to preserve the environment, with an almost linear decline in the number of articles published by year through 1990 (Dwyer, Leeming, Cobern, Porter, & Jackson, 1993). In a 1990 Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis editorial, Geller mourned the decline of the field, reported on the opinions of prominent environmental researchers on why the decline occurred, and optimistically declared the 1990s as "ripe for environmental protection research" (Geller, 1990, p. 273).

However, behavioral environmental protection is far from reaching its potential. Although research evaluating behavioral interventions to preserve the environment continues to be published (a literature search revealed 32 published studies since 1990), publications in leading behavioral journals have declined substantially (e.g., only five articles in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis since 1990 compared to 15 in the 1970s). In contrast, the publication of research concerning environmental attitudes has flourished. Although Environment and Behavior published more research concerning behavioral interventions to preserve the environment than any other journal since 1990 (i.e., nine articles), research reports focusing on environmental attitudes and demographic characteristics of those involved in environmentally-relevant behavior outnumbered intervention articles at a rate of seven to one. In addition, there is little evidence the effective behavioral interventions that are documented in research journals have escaped their pages to make significant contributions toward solving real-world environmental problems. In other words, the external validity of this research is weak or nonexistent.

The purpose of this paper is to review the contributions of behavioral scientists in promoting pro-environmental behavior and explore reasons for the limited impact. After an overview of the environmental crisis, the behaviors targeted by interventions are reviewed, as well as the components of the most successful interventions. …