Updated: 18 December 2014

UNESCO and OECD pay attention to our research on evolutionary psychology and sustainability: Nudging people to go green.

In a previous blog — "Are we Hardwired to Damage the Environment?" — I raised the question about whether we humans are hardwired to destroy our beautiful planet. This bold claim is based on what anthropologists know about traditional societies — these were not as sustainable as was once believed — consider, for example, the Easter Island tragedy. It is also supported by what we know as psychologists and neuroscientists about how the human mind works.

In short, I suggested that our minds are adapted to life in an environment where it pays to (a) look after your personal interests more than the interests of (unknown) others, (b) value the present more than the future, (c) be concerned about your status, (d) copy and imitate the behaviors of those around you, and (e) disregard global environmental threats. I explained how these “Stone Age” psychological biases came to be and argued why they would make it difficult to persuade humanity to adopt a greener, more sustainable life style looking at such problems as overconsumption, waste, littering, and overpulation.

Yet, this is only half of the story. The other half is that we can apply insights from psychology, natural and neurosciences to develop a more sustainable agenda for this planet. In recent articles with Vlad Griskevicius, published in Social Policy Review and the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, we give many examples of green influence strategies that are effective, because they are aligned with human nature. This has been picked up by UNESCO and in their World Social Science Report we have weritten a contribution about how knowledge from evolutioanry psychology can "nudge"people to go green. 

Here is a top % green nudges for adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, inspired by our article.

(1) Get involved in your local community

Humans are social imitators by nature. Home residents say that the behavior of their neighbors has very little effect on their own conservation behaviors, but it is one of the strongest predictors of energy and water use. When people learn that their neighbours are conserving, they decrease their own energy consumption. Public appeals to reduce water consumption during a local shortage has the most effect on people who are well connected with their neighborhood and proud members of their community.

(2) Buy a hybrid car to increase your sex appeal

We value our social status. So can you get status from being green? Yes you can. Both the Toyota Prius and Lexus hybrid are green cars but they are relatively expensive. You would not think that people would buy them. Yet their sales have been far higher than expected. Why? Because driving a hybrid signals to other people that you are both wealthy and concerned about the fate of this planet. This is an ideal signal to members of the opposite sex. Indeed, research suggests that women find men who show a concern for the planet sexually more attractive.

(3) Put posters with people watching you in public places

Humans are extremely concerned about their reputation. Studies suggest that putting posters in public places with pictures of eyes on them reduces littering. Why? These eyes, whether real or imagined, give us a feeling of being watched. And when we think we are being watched, we do the morally right thing. So putting posters with pictures of eyes near an electricity switch or tap at home or at the office, or installing clearly visble CCTV cameras in public spaces, might actually help.

(4) Watch scenes of natural beauty

Humans evolved in a natural environment and so we have an innate tendency to appreciate other living things and we feel happiest in a lush, green environment. This is the idea of biophilia. Some research suggests that these natural landscape preferences are hardwired. The question is whether they can also promote a green lifestyle. Psychological research (including that of ourselves) has discovered that by playing nature scenes or sounds to people, they are happier, more trusting, more forward looking and consume less — all the ingredients for a greener life style.

(5) Move into a stable, crime-free neighborhood

Many environmental problems are the result of human short sightedness. Yet there are ways to get people to value the future more. Research by my colleagues Vlad Griskevicius, Josh Tybur and others suggests that it matters where you grow up. In one study they found that people who grew up in a relatively unstable and dangerous neighborhood are more likely to consume excessively and start a family earlier in life. Thus, improving neighborhoods and reducing crime rates actually change people’s time orientations so that they become less materialistic and more concerned about the future. 

Thus, by developing influence strategies that take into account the peculiar features of human nature, we can get people to lead a more sustainable, happier lifestyle. This is the roadmap we should pursue to develop a green agenda for this planet.

If you know of any clever nudge strategies that have persuaded you to lead a greener lifestyle, please let me know.



Vugt, M. van, Griskevicius, V. & Schultz, P. W. (2014). Naturally green: Harnessing stone age psychological biases to foster environmental behavior. Social Issue and Policy Review, 8, 1-32.

Vugt, M. van & Griskevicius, V. (2013). World Social Science Report: Changing global environments. Going green: Using evolutionary psychology to foster sustainable lifestyles. : ISSC.


About the Author

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D.

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D., is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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