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Why People With Climate Change Concerns Don't Always Do What's Best For The Environment

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Climate change is in the news constantly and at the top of a lot of people's minds. But when it comes to changing our daily habits to include more climate-friendly behaviors, we don't always succeed. Our co-host Ailsa Chang has been exploring why.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Let's be honest now. In the rush of your day, do you ever find yourself tossing a plastic water bottle into the trash rather than taking the extra 30 seconds it would take to walk it to a recycling bin? And do you do that in spite of the fact that you think of yourself as environmentally conscious? Well, Ashley Whillans, a behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School, says you are not alone.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: That's exactly what we find in our data, is that when people are feeling pressed for time, environmental actions that don't take very much time all of a sudden feel impossible - composting, recycling, remembering to turn off all the lights in your house before you leave.

CHANG: And there's actually a term for this. It's called the intention-action gap, which means you can care deeply about the environment and still fail to do things you know are good for the environment. So Ashley Whillans is trying to bridge that gap. She wants to help people make decisions that benefit their own health, their happiness and also benefit the planet. Her target now - people who drive alone to work every. Turns out, though, commuting is not an easy behavior to change.

WHILLANS: So we worked with employees at a large airport - nearly 80,000 employees. We ran these experiments in this organization because employees told us they wanted to take transit. They wanted to carpool with their colleagues.

We tried every trick in our tool kit as behavioral scientists. We told employees that lots of other people were commuting in these actives in sustainable ways. We made carpooling really easy by matching people with other employees who lived really close to them. We even offered free transit passes. Who doesn't like free stuff?

CHANG: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

WHILLANS: And what we found is none of these interventions had any meaningful impact.

CHANG: Wow.

WHILLANS: But all hope is not lost in the world. We think we have some reason to believe that the organization was making driving alone simply too easy. Parking was free.

CHANG: So what do you think it would take to get people to actually change their commuting behavior?

WHILLANS: We're trying a lot of different incentives now. And financial incentives seem to help push people in favor of taking these more alternative forms of commuting. And taking parking away, although obviously, that would cause some pushback from employees, does seem to be effective. When people have no other option, they're open to alternatives and can enjoy them.

CHANG: Are you saying that the stick works a lot better than the carrot often?

WHILLANS: I think in the context of commuting, which is a habitual, everyday behavior where driving alone is kind of more comfortable and a little bit nicer, that sticks seem to work better than carrots.

CHANG: Well, are there other tactics that come to mind if you want to get people to stop driving alone in their cars?

WHILLANS: Yeah. We're also trying to move away from this social focus of carpooling. Most carpooling apps in organizations are like, hey, carpooling is a way to get to know your fellow colleagues. And really - actually what we're finding is the last thing you want to do at 7:45 in the morning on your way to work is have a colleague talk to you...

CHANG: (Laughter).

WHILLANS: ...Before you have to go and talk...

CHANG: That's so true.

WHILLANS: ...To colleagues all day. So we think that there's been a bit of an issue with marketing.

CHANG: This is all so interesting. It makes me feel like maybe behavioral science is still vastly underused when it comes to tackling something like climate change. I mean, what do you think?

WHILLANS: I think that behavioral science principles, you can start to see them slowly emerging in this conversation around climate change and sustainability. If you get an energy bill, maybe your energy use is being compared to your neighbors. And that's a direct result of behavioral science research.

But I think the gains have been fairly small, even in my own experiment. Behavioral science didn't work because the organization offered free parking. So I think scientists like me are going to need to work together with organizations and with transportation specialists to design cities and structures with behavioral science in mind.

CHANG: Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Thank you very much for joining us.

WHILLANS: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUSINE'S "TURN BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.