Sustainability under the gaze of Behavioral Economics

Category: BehavioralEconomics, consumer, Sustainability

Sustainability under the gaze of Behavioral Economics
Sustainability is a concept that has evolved year after year [...] it has become so stretched that it no longer covers only environmental issues: being sustainable is being moral.

Behavioral Economics is a modern discipline that aims to understand how people make decisions. It draws directly from social and cognitive psychology, and its field of knowledge is emotions and cognitions, the way in which our mind processes, interprets and values ​​information.

To talk about the first steps in Behavioral Economics we must go back to 1972, when the psychologists Kahneman and Tversky coined the term cognitive biases, these biases are what explain the gap between what people claim to do and how we really behave. As a result of this discovery, many other investigations have emerged that, to this day, are still very revealing for understanding user behavior, and are especially useful when it is necessary to propose changes in behavior.

Speaking of sustainability, this is saying a lot.


Sustainability that makes consumption problematic

Sustainability is a concept that has evolved year after year. Based on its own moral nature, it has become so stretched that it no longer covers only environmental issues: being sustainable is being moral, yes, but being moral is not just being sustainable; for the consumer it also means being social, fair and consistent.

This meaning in sustainability is what puts the consumer in a situation of emotional conflict at the time of purchase by making their consumption normative, prohibitive, in short, problematic. The consumer is subjected to an unresolved moral imposition: "Am I hurting someone if I decide to buy this product?" Even starting from products under the umbrella of sustainability, there can be doubts: "Am I sustainable enough?" The aspirational competes with the moral: "How am I going to buy a car that pollutes a lot?".

Cognitive dissonance, unresolved conflict in the consumer's mind

Psychology has taught us that our minds do not like to be made difficult when making a decision. According to León Festinger, a social psychologist who developed the theory of cognitive dissonance, people need to align our beliefs, attitudes and actions so that we can feel good about ourselves, we need to be consistent in our decisions - actions

In the desire of the mainstream consumer is both the pretense of perceiving himself as a responsible citizen with his environment and continuing to be a free consumer who enjoys being one. And that is the origin of your cognitive dissonance, and this is the opportunity to offer you mechanisms of action that facilitate your decision towards a consumption that is as sustainable as it is free.


Solutions from Behavioral Economics

The challenge is, therefore, to offer the consumer a way to continue enjoying while training them to be sustainable.
What Behavioral Economics offers us in this sense are concrete solutions to resolve this moment of conflict with some behavioral supports that help us decide to be more sustainable, we will tell you some:


  • Framing and social norm.

People rely on interpretation schemes to understand-respond to the world around us. In other words, we use our environment to know how to behave, this is what is known as the framing effect. The problem in the field of sustainability is that we do not have a sufficiently clear reference on how sustainable we should be, something that allows us to position ourselves and where we can feel comfortable with our actions. The consumer wonders, "how far do I have to go to be sustainable". This lack of reference can lead to the abandonment of sustainable behavior.

One way to solve it is to work from the social norm. In 2007, Schultz & cols demonstrated that the use of normative messages with emoticons is an effective source of reducing energy consumption. This intervention program managed to reduce community energy consumption by 2%.


  • Feedback.

We are social beings, we learn through observation and feedback constantly guides us in our behavior. The truth here is that we do not have clear feedback on being sustainable and, cognitively, this is a problem. People reinforce our behaviors or abandon them based on the information we obtain from the environment while we act and, therefore, the absence of response, feedback can lead us to abandonment.

Newell and Siikamäki (2013) found that basic information on the economic value of saving energy was the most important element in promoting the consumption of energy-efficient appliances. This small labeling acts as a powerful facilitator nudge for the consumer, providing reliable, direct and simple feedback to the consumer, making their decision easier and more sustainable.

As we see, behavioral sciences always provide innovative solutions to our problems, it is up to us to decide to take advantage of them.