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Why is the transition to sustainable behavior so difficult?

In a world increasingly aware of environmental issues, many people desire to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Yet, the transition to sustainable behavior is not as simple as it may seem. 

A new review article by Professor Wilhelm Hofmann of Ruhr University Bochum explains why self-control is more complex than a mere lack of self-discipline. 

Motivational conflicts 

“People often encounter motivational conflicts in which they must somehow choose between a highly enjoyable, tempting option and an option that is more long-term oriented or prosocial,” said Professor Hofmann. 

“This phenomenon is the focus of self-control research, where self-control is typically defined as the process of advancing a self-control goal over a conflicting motivation.”

The external environment 

Hofmann argues that when psychological studies are focused on the individual, they often overlook structural factors. His analysis of numerous research studies uncovers the significant role of the physical and social environment in shaping individual behavior.

For instance, when an eco-conscious consumer faces a choice between multiple meat dishes and a single, possibly more expensive vegetarian option, the environmental setup plays a key role in decision-making. This example illustrates the conflict between personal goals and available choices.

Beyond individual discipline 

Traditional theories like self-determination emphasize personal autonomy and the preservation of freedom of choice. However, Hofmann points out that this approach is flawed. 

The assumption that providing sufficient information about risks and trusting individuals to make the right decisions is insufficient. Environmental and social norms significantly influence decisions, like the tendency to conform to peer choices in matters like car ownership.

Structural changes are needed

“Many people try to live in a more sustainable manner, but fail to do so in reality,” said Hofmann. Unsustainable options are often cheaper, more visible and more available than sustainable ones. 

“Relying on individual discipline, willingness to make sacrifices and a sense of guilt won’t get us very far. We need to question and change the structures that contribute to social problems such as the overuse of natural resources and make sustainable behavior more difficult. And in order to achieve this, we need sound and effective political decisions.” 

Escalating climate crisis 

Hofmann suggests that society needs to agree on good rules in order to provide individuals with the best possible support on the path to sustainable behavior.

“The accelerating climate crisis is the best example of how the unlimited exercise of personal consumer freedoms leads to negative consequences for society as a whole,” explained Hofmann. 

“We’ve forgotten to a certain extent to look at the collective benefit, i.e. the common good, and need to recognize the importance of good regulation once again. By this I mean that we need to agree on effective and fair rules that protect us from risks and that apply to everyone equally. Such as are standard practice in road traffic, for example.”

The role of the individual 

While acknowledging the importance of structural changes, Hofmann does not diminish the role of individual efforts in achieving sustainability.

“Everyone can take small steps and help shape their environment wherever possible. And once your own creative power as a citizen, employee or customer reaches its limits, you can advocate for people with decision-making power to take up the cause. We always have the power to influence.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology.

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