Fit for the Future: Empowering Climate Action through Fitness and Behaviour Change
06 June 2023
Unlock Next Gen member Keiran Mccandless describes how psychological behavioural change can lead to effortless climate action.
As the halfway mark of the year approached, I, like many others, was hit with the realization that summer was just around the corner. It was time to shape up and make a change. So, I dusted off the bathroom scales, started reading food labels, and swiftly downloaded MyFitnessPal on my phone. Over the following weeks, I replaced ice cream with yogurt, pizza with poultry, and burgers with blueberries. Not only do I feel better (gut microbiome included), but I'm also ready to bask in the fleeting sunshine that Scotland may – but probably doesn’t – have in store for me.
I share this anecdote not to boast about my commitment to counting macros and eating healthily, but to illustrate the essence of behaviour change. It all starts with receiving information or an impetus for change, such as the arrival of summer. This prompts us to adopt new behaviours, like reading food labels, in pursuit of that desired change—getting in shape, in my case. Similarly, I felt the same trigger for change as World Environmental Day approached on Monday the 5th June. This unlikely amalgamation of topics led me to what I consider the bridge between the two – behaviour change and the science behind it.
Behaviour change has long been a focus of psychological research, leading to the development of various theories. Among these, the Reasoned Action and Social Cognition theories are particularly relevant. Let me briefly summarize them.
Reasoned Action Theory suggests that our inclination to change is influenced by our feelings toward our current behaviour and our perceived difficulty in changing it. I've visualized this theory below:
Social Cognition Theory
On the other hand, Social Cognition Theory expands the influencing factors beyond individual attitudes and motivations. It takes into account how we perceive others' behaviours and what we believe others think about our own behaviours.
*Third Wall Break Alert* Honestly, I hate MS Visio so no cool diagram for this one but essentially Social Cognition Theory adds to Reasoned Action Theory by including for what we see others do and what we think others think about what we do.
In the context of embracing a healthy diet, Reasoned Action Theory would argue that how likely you are to be in your pursuit of sick gains would be the product of how concerned you are with your current lack of sick gains and, if you weren’t happy with your current norm, how hard you think it would be to adopt new exercise and eating habits. Social Cognition Theory would take most of this and expand on it to argue that how you feel about your current norm would be influenced by how you view your health habits in comparison to those around you, and add a new dimension to how difficult you perceive adopting those habits by including for how your social standing would be improved should you make the effort to overcome that difficulty.
So, how does this relate to climate action?
Consider a world where littering is not only the norm but encouraged, but you don’t feel so great about it. Maybe you care about sea turtles or not making a floating piece of rubbish the size of France in the Pacific or something, I don’t know. You would develop your behaviour of littering when you were young as you see others do it and haven’t yet considered how you feel about it. This behaviour would be further reinforced by your fear of social exclusion if you started behaving in a way others disapproved of. While this analogy may seem preposterous at first glance, it’s really not too far removed from many of the actions we collectively make as a society at large.
With this newfound (and probably mangled) understanding of behaviour change theories, let's reflect on the world around us. Our society has evolved around the norm of driving (enter Social Cognition Theory!). Consequently, our cities and infrastructure cater to this norm, making driving necessary for some individuals to avoid social exclusion. We can see this contrast when comparing cities like New York, which developed significantly before widespread automobile adoption, with cities like Los Angeles, which emerged afterward. New York boasts one of the world's best public transit systems—the famous NY subway—while LA is crisscrossed with vast networks of 5+ lane highways. Asking an Angeleno to give up driving in favour of a greener world might resonate with them, but the practical and social difficulties of implementing such a change would be immense, possibly leading to failure or reluctance to even attempt it. This partly explains why a world now acutely aware of global warming's effects and the unsustainability of our current lifestyles remains hesitant to change.
Hence, demanding people to alter their behaviour without first changing the world around them to alleviate the perceived difficulty of that change is likely a misdirected effort. This doesn't imply that we should overlook fostering a culture that rejects environmental apathy, as doing so would neglect a significant aspect of Social Cognition Theory. However, we must also consider Reasoned Action Theory, recognizing that behaviour change is often challenging and unsustainable without making it as easy as possible for individuals to adopt those changes.
This is a confounding concept at first glance. We believe that because change will exist on a smaller scale, it is easier, and therefore should precede larger changes which would be more difficult. But in the macroscopic realm of broad societal change, the two must go hand in hand. A culture of climate action should be fostered to promote desire to change on an individual level, policymakers must act to enable that change on a broader scale, and those changes should be celebrated on a societal level to remind us of our capacity to influence the world around us when we do.