Environmental Psychology

Effects of Human Behavior on the Environment

Human behavior can have positive or adverse effects on the environment.  Environmental cues produce societal behaviors.  The societal behaviors establish the societal norms that create an internal drive to attain a set goal.  In today’s societies, environmental preservation does not seem to be at the top of the agenda.  Although efforts are made to increase the awareness of the dangers the environment faces in the future, many times, society fails to realize the full extent their behavior takes on the environment.  It is important to practice preservation now to attain sustainability in the future.  Developing preservation plans supported by society will lead to a more behavior conscious pro-environmental individual.

Environmental Cues and Behavior

Environmental cues are aspects of an experience that trigger a reactive response (Steg, 2013).   Reactive responses are the behaviors influenced by environmental cues.  Individual exposure to an experience receives a signal that triggers a behavior response causing the individual to react in a particular manner (Steg, 2013).   The environmental cues inform the individual of what is occurring in the environment influencing the expected reciprocated behavior (Steg, 2013).  A student who is caught cheating on an assignment is suspended from school rendering him or her unable to complete assignments during that time.  The incomplete assignments reflect negatively on the student’s grade.  Other students in the class see the punishment as a negative reflection of the individual and, therefore, avoid cheating on their assignments.  The environmental cue in this scenario is the punishment inflicted upon the cheating student.  The environmental cue influences other students no to repeat the negative behavior to avoid bad grades and suspension.

Behavior modification is attained through various efforts.  One way is for an individual to receive an incentive for positive behavior (McLeod, 2015).  A less fortunate individual searches for recyclables by shifting through trash.  The recyclables may potentially be their next meal.  An individual sees the behavior and develops a motivation to help by separating the recyclables from the common trash.  The incentive works two ways, the one in need receives a monetary supplement used to fulfill their hunger.  The individual who took the time to separate the recyclables receives the incentive of internal satisfaction of helping someone in need, as well as saving time and the appearance of the area around the trash receptacle.  Additionally, both people have done a part in preserving the environment that also gives an internal feel of satisfaction.

Behavior can be contagious.  When an individual perceives a behavior as socially acceptable, the behavior is more likely to be repeated (McLeod, 2015).  However, behavior perceived as socially unacceptable will more likely be negated, and another action adopted instead (McLeod, 2015).  For instance, if the street is littered, the individual perceives this as acceptable and may also litter.  However, if the streets are clean, the individual is more likely to find a trash can or even pick up loose litter dirtying the environment (Steg, 2023).  Once a non-environmental behavior becomes habitual, it is evident that effort must be made to modify the negative behavior to sustain the environment and its resources for the future (Steg, 2013).

Behavior Modification to Support Sustainability

The principle of sustainability is the understanding that all survival needs are met either directly or indirectly through the environment (“Epa: United States Environmental Protection Agency”, August 28, 2015).  Pursuing sustainability is to create and maintain harmonic conditions between nature and humans while permitting social and economic requirements for present and future generations (“Epa: United States Environmental Protection Agency”, August 28, 2015).    Learned behavior carries the potential of modification through the use of conditioning techniques to support the cause (McLeod, 2014).  Behavior modification relies on the theory of operant conditioning which claims that changing environmental events that produce the behavior can be modified by offering an incentive for desired behavior or consequences for undesired behavior (McLeod, 2014).

The woman looking for recyclables had a goal of finding enough recyclables to produce enough money for a meal.  The individual had a goal of having a neat garbage storage area.  Both incentives are primary. However, a secondary incentive remains:  Both individuals did something positive for the environment.  The secondary reinforcement inflicted feelings of satisfaction of doing the right thing giving more incentive to repeat the behavior.  Combining an external reward with a positive internal feeling promotes the continuance of the behavior.

Modifying a behavior that has a negative impact on the environment promotes preservation for the future (Steg, 2013).  Although an incentive should not be necessary to impact a person to preserve the environment, it does promote a positive change.  The contagiousness of moods appears to be similar to the contagiousness of behavior (Steg, 2013).  When an individual perceives a behavior as positive, it becomes inviting and desirable (McLeod, 2014).  To sustain the environment, it is imperative that behavior modifications among the communities take an immediate effect (“Epa: United States Environmental Protection Agency”, August 28, 2015).  Simple behaviors such as carpooling, walking to work, or shutting off the water when brushing one’s teeth will aid in sustaining environmental resources (“Epa: United States Environmental Protection Agency”, August 28, 2015).  Implementing a plan to sustain the environment may produce a societal acceptance of preservation efforts causing the effort to become a social norm.

Social Norms

A social norm is a behavior perceived as acceptable and expected within a certain environment.  Every environment has established social norms that apply to a certain environment (Steg, 2013).  When an individual reacts in a manner that deviates away from the social norm for any reason, the civic cooperation and rule of law are sacrificed (Steg, 2013).  The influence of social norms and normative goals is most secure when the behavior and goal are accepted and promoted by others (Steg, 2013).  Therefore, a community with a higher support of behavior causes an individual to conform to the accepted behavior (Steg, 2013).  When adopting a pro-environmental behavior, it is necessary to recognize environmental cues, social norms, and rules emphasizing the goal (Steg, 2013).  In turn, if the goal is strong and pools enough support from society, respect for the goal is developed which will reflect in individual behavior that supports the goal (Steg, 2013).

Sometimes obstacles hinder a goal. Therefore, it is necessary to remove any obstacles that may deplete the motivation to support the cause (McLeod, 2014).  When the goal is to promote recycling, it is necessary to make the goal attainable by supplying separate bins or a center within the community to encourage consistency.  Having a consistency behind a behavior causes the behavior to become habitual, and, therefore, a more permanent behavior modification (McLeod, 2014).


The EPA declares that achieving sustainability is dependent upon a plan that focuses on economic, social, and environmental requirements that cause a harmony among all in the environment (2015).   Although environmental preservation is a huge combination of different techniques developed to protect the different resources, it is important first to protect the future.  Protecting the future means supplying the children of today with knowledge and tools available to preserve the environment will prove to be a sufficient start.  Children have an entire world of support.  They are the secret weapon of a sound tomorrow.  Teaching a child, the importance of and how to preserve the environment will condition them to adopt preservation behaviors such as recycling and saving resources and energy.  Teaching a child, the potential for the behavior will develop an internal motivation to “save the planet”, as they want a beautiful world to raise their children in.

Additionally, making preservation economically attainable is vital.  Going green is more costly than traditional purchasing.  The products accrue a higher cost as living organic tends to cost more.  Consumers pay more for organically grown food than food sprayed with chemicals and animals injected with hormones. The chemicals used in farming carry the potential to increase disease, as infinite warnings of the potential effect eating a certain food may cause.  As the world has evolved so has generalized illness and disease.  The chemicals used in farming trickle into the water supply that is run into homes.  Reducing the cost of organic living will cause more people to purchase organic food and less chemically treated food.  Organic food will become the demand requiring an increase in supply in turn increasing higher profit.  The higher profits could then be used to fund things like water filters, solar lighting, or even more education on preservation.


A sound environment is essential for human existence.  Preserving the environment solidifies a harmonic environment for the future.  Although efforts at attaining environmental sustainability have begun, it has been a slow process implementing the necessary preservation plans.  The best way to ensure a pro-environmental future is to begin educating the children who will be the future.


EPA: United States Environmental Protection Agency. (August 28, 2015). Retrieved from http://www2.epa.gov/sustainability/learn-about-sustainability#what

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Steg, L. (2013). Environmental psychology: An introduction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.


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