Posted by: Jon | 02/11/2009

The 13 ‘dragons’ of unsustainable behaviour

Dragons of Unsustainable BehaviourResponding to a recent post of mine on why, in the face of planetary catastrophe, the majority of people are not urgently adopting sustainable lifestyles, Professor Robert Gifford (of the University of Victoria, British Columbia) sent me the Powerpoint slides from his talk on exactly this topic.

Having spent the early months of this year trying to navigate my way around psychological theories of ‘denial’, cognitive dissonance, ‘lock-in’ to social and institutional norms, intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors and so forth, I’ve become very aware of what a complex subject this is.

So, for my own benefit, I have begun to condense the mainly UK studies I’ve looked at into a research review to try to identify ‘what works’ in motivating grassroots action towards living within our sustainable means. This is, of course, a vast and complex inter-disciplinary area to research and I still have much focusing to do. So Robert Gifford’s Powerpoint Presentation has arrived as a welcome gift. He has succinctly condensed a wide range of psychological considerations into a coherent framework primarily intended to inform new academic research and social policy making but nonetheless entirely accessible to a interested lay-person like me. You can download the presentation here(If the Google Docs link does not work for you, download pdf here: Dragons_UBC_Sept_21_09).

Robert identifies what he calls the ‘Dragons’ that impede an individual’s decision-making towards meaningful sustainable behaviours. These include the enormity of our ‘lock-in’ to the momentum of the human systems in which we live – what he terms ‘the flywheel of society’. But he concentrates primarily on thirteen key psychological barriers that he has identified, each of which falls into one of three areas of individual response as follows:

1/   ‘Social Comparisons’ – the decisions that individuals make about their own lives in relation to their perceptions of the lives of other people (including the societal norms adhered to, the extent – or lack – of identification with a community, the influence of peer-groups, and the disincentive of others ‘free-riding’ on the back of one’s own efforts);

2/   ‘Problem Denial’ – interestingly, ‘denial’ that a problem of sustainability exists appears prevalent amongst only around 20% of the populations researched – but this minority is disproportionately vocal;

3/   ‘Other Priorities’ – having other daily life concerns or other personal goals and aspirations that take precedence over an individual’s concern for (or knowledge of) issues of sustainability.

Robert draws certain inferences from recent psychological research, in particular that there is no single solution to motivating sustainable behaviours because the different values and beliefs of different population segments manifest themselves in different types of sustainable or unsustainable behaviour. Therefore barriers and behaviours amongst varying populations need to be clearly understood and policies and practices targeted precisely. This seems a far cry from the confusing media and advertising representations that we are exposed to daily or the ‘catch-all’ social marketing communications of sustainability to date.

His presentation includes research findings of how populations perceive the state of the natural environment now and in the future. These are revealing about how we continue to distance ourselves from the problems, both in terms of time and geographical space. Robert also presents some sampling results of what are the prevalent psychological barriers to behavioural change. Findings are different for different populations, but nonetheless barriers to sustainable behaviour do seem to centre more around the weight of societal norms and our perceived lack of empowerment to act than they do on reactive or sceptical responses. In other words, we do not deny the problems of sustainability but feel powerless in our present life circumstances to respond adequately. (Of course, whether we might become more reactive when faced with top-down regulation has not yet been tested – although we do know that we have adapted to seat-belt and non-smoking regulations without much demur).

Other psychological research that I have read is much in line with the direction that Robert’s presentation leads us and I will return in future posts to specific areas of research. In particular I am interested in the impact of peer-group pressure, the relevance or otherwise of our perceptions of the integrity of the ‘messenger’, and the importance of our sense of belonging to a community. But meanwhile, since it is rare for social-policy research to filter down to inform the grassroots that it pertains to – and especially to be as clear and accessible as Robert’s slide presentation – I wanted to share his work more widely. There is much more information in the slides than I have alluded to here and it is well worth taking some time to look at them. I am grateful to him for making them available.

Illustration from 'Silent Memoir'


Postscript:  There is a November 2010 update on Robert Gifford’s “Dragons of Unsustainability” here



  1. Can you email the pdf of the 13 dragons PP? Thanks Danny in Taiwan

    (re want to know why people are in denial about my polar cities images here)


  2. can I please get the link for the pdf google docs does not work for me..
    this article has really helped me a lot..

  3. Dragon 1• Environmental Numbness Pure ignorance Tuning out; message overload

    Dragon 2• Uncertainty Scientific integrity Lack of immediate salience

    Dragon 3• Lack of Perceived (Behavioral) Control Personal Societal

    Dragon 4• Denial 20 percent Vocal group

    Dragon 5• Conflicting Goals and Aspirations Getting ahead Health/Safety…etc.

    Dragon 6• Social Norms, Equity, and Felt Justice My peers…It’s
    industry Not fair!

    Dragon 7• Reactance Lack of trust You’ll never make me!

    Dragon 8• (Lack of) Identification with One’s Community It’s not my
    nest You take care of it

    Dragon 9• Tokenism I already recycle, I changed the lightbulbs, I’m done

    Dragon 10• Habit The flywheel of society Behavioural momentum

    Dragon 11• Perceived Risks Psychosocial/Financial/Functional/Physical/Time

    Dragon 12• Divine Determinism/Mother Nature/Father God

    Dragon 13• Optimism Bias Known to exist for:
    Health/Intelligence/Attractiveness…Environment, too Maybe the existing
    models are too simple, so…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s