The Psychology of Environmental Decision Making


Research Activities
Our team of psychologists, led by Ed Sadalla, Douglas Kenrick, and Steven Neuberg from the Department of Psychology and Susan Ledlow from the School of Sustainability, works with doctoral student Becca Neel and numerous undergraduate students. They employ both evolutionary and sociocultural models in an active research program including several interrelated experiments examining the psychology of water/energy use and perceptions of climate change beliefs and science.

Recent work examines self-presentational barriers to low water use residential landscaping (Sadalla et al. in review, Journal of Environmental Psychology) as well as priorities in residential water use (Sadalla et al. in review, Environment and Behavior). Another ongoing study examines the influence of gender and social norms on climate change beliefs. Preliminary findings suggest that information about women’s climate change beliefs is important in influencing public opinion. Additionally, findings from ongoing work in collaboration with noted psychologist Robert Cialdini suggest the potential to influence the majority to adopt minority behaviors by presenting information on growing trends. Moving forward, this group has initiated a collaboration with economist Kerry Smith on research at the intersection of psychology and economics that will examine perceptions of urban density and the discounting of negative events.

Psychology of Residential Water Demand and Climate Adaptation
During the past year, the psychology team contributed to enhanced understanding of environmental decision making under uncertainty. Findings from a series of psychology experiments on residential water demand raise some concerns about the efficacy of water conservation programs and provide guidance for more effective communication. Sadalla et al. (in review, Journal of Environmental Psychology) found that water intensive landscapes led to a greater number of consistently positive attributions than did water conserving landscapes. In particular, homeowners selecting high water use landscapes were rated higher in family orientation, sexual attractiveness, and extraversion. Some support was found for the hypothesis that high water use landscapes led to higher attributions of homeowner status. These results support the idea that landscaping choice is guided by self-presentational considerations, and that such considerations could impede the adoption of low water use landscapes.

In a second paper, Sadalla et al. (in review, Environment and Behavior) employed a trade-off paradigm to examine priorities in residential water use. The study found that indoor water uses, especially those related to health and sanitation, were consistently higher priorities and that under a restricted budget, residents may be willing to forgo a significant amount of outdoor water use. The findings imply that campaigns to reduce outdoor water use would not meet with as much resistance as campaigns to reduce indoor water use. Longer-term Phoenix-area residents, however, have greater priorities on outdoor water use for lush, mesic landscaping and may be more resistant to conservation programs.


Research Activities
In DCDC II, we added a team of ASU psychologists including Susan Ledlow, Ed Sadalla, Douglas Kenrick, Steven Neuberg, and graduate and undergraduate students. They employ both evolutionary and sociocultural models to understand environmental decision making. In year one of DCDC II, the psychology team conducted several studies to examine: 1) priorities in residential water use in the Phoenix area; 2) social symbolism of landscaping; 3) framing effects in advertisements for conservation behavior; 4) belief in climate change and perceptions of climate-change consensus; and 5) temporal discounting in the valuation of the long-term payback of energy-efficiency upgrades.

Human-environmental geographer Kelli Larson seeks to understand the bases of environmental judgments and decision making. She has developed a tripartite model of affective, cognitive, and conative judgments to explain the sociocultural basis for environmental judgments (Larson et al. in press). In a another paper in Environment and Behavior, co-authored with graduate student Dorothy Ibes and DCDC Associate Director Dave White, Larson examined gendered perspectives about water risks and policy strategies (Larson et al. 2011). Incorporating an array of perspectives on human-ecological problems and possible solutions helps to ensure that sustainability policies are socially accepted and culturally appropriate.

DCDC Researchers: