future science group
10.4155/CMT.11.59 © 2011 Future Science Ltd
The converging of climate disruption, energy descent
and economic instability is stressing civilization, per-
haps foreshadowing a downshift to a lower level of com-
plexity . It is easy to despair at the unsustainability of
human behavior; however, such despair may come from
taking too narrow and pessimistic a view of human
nature, such as believing:
Unsustainability results from a motivational drive to
reduce cognitive dissonance, which leaves us floun-
dering in collective denial;
Behavioral inertia is an immutable force making us
unable to shift direction;
Much of human behavior is reducible to the actions
of one neurotransmitter; our demise will result from
hijacking dopamine pathways;
Humans are egocentric, short-term gain maximizers,
consuming resources with little concern for waste,
passing costs on to others and forming exclusive
groups that neglect outsiders.
While each is based on valid insights, the mistake is
our believing that any one is the root of human nature.
Such reductionism harkens, unfortunately, to an ear-
lier period, when a then-dominant behaviorism argued
that the existence of a behaviorist explanation made
all other explanations irrelevant. This notion that an
explanation at one level usurps the possibility of a use-
ful explanation at another was widespread enough to
have received several colorful labels, such as ‘nothing
butism’ and MacKay’s more elegant “fallacy of ‘nothing
After over a century of research, it would hardly seem
necessary for us to argue in support of multiple deter-
minants of behavior. Yet, single-determination theories
abound. Their oversimplification is no more acceptable
now than it was then; if indeed there is a demonstrable
role for one view, this in no way eliminates the possibil-
ity that there is a role for other, and more positive, views
as well. That humans can act in unsustainable ways is
irrefutable. But when discussing human behavior, say-
ing that our species’ motivation is X or our behavior is
to always do Y is simply wrong. There is no scientific
basis for so narrow a view of human nature. The brain
is more malleable and behavior more adaptive than such
Slow wins: patience, perseverance and behavior change
Carbon Management (2011) 2(6), 607–611
The transition we face must be done well the first time with the changes made durable;
it is unlikely we will get a second chance. ”
Raymond De Young*
*School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109–1041, USA
Keywords: adaptive muddling n behavior change n behavioral continuity n behavioral wedges n demand reduction
n durable change n environmental psychology n human nature n innate inclinations n intrinsic satisfactions
Carbon Management (2011) 2(6)
future science group
Editorial De Young
The fallacy is compounded by the advice that typically
follows: due to the alleged unsustainability of human
nature, people’s behavior must be manipulated; they
must be managed using incentives, disincentives and
tight prescriptive rules, and the content of their mental
models (e.g., attitudes, knowledge and worldview) must
be reformed. The flaw here is our assumed privilege as
reformation experts. With rhetorical and condescend-
ing questions (e.g., are humans smarter than yeast?) we
dismiss the possibility of the public voluntarily changing
behavior in time to avoid catastrophe. But strangely, as
experts, we are held above this contempt. We arrogate
to ourselves a rarefied psychological nature and a noble
obligation to make other people behave. Alas, even if
this assumed entitlement is granted, research shows that
the manipulations we commonly employ are not reliable
and rarely durable .
We must correctly define the problem being faced.
The issue here is not whether human nature leads inexo-not whether human nature leads inexo- whether human nature leads inexo-
rably to sustainable or unsustainable outcomes; we are
capable of both, neither is inevitable. What we are chal-
lenged with is specifying the conditions under which
humans behave more reasonably .
Behavior is hard to change, but its stability
Behavioral inertia is mentioned as a serious barrier to
the changes needed . However, we should recoil at
inertia’s alternative: behavior being extremely easy to
change, creating great moment-to-moment variability.
Every next stimulus, whether from the environment
or others, distracts attention and diverts behavior.
Behavior changed never stays changed for long. Clearly,
this describes a chaotic system, one unable to follow a
plan or achieve a goal.
The irrationality of the alternative makes it easy to see
why continuity of behavior is an adaptive trait. Without
it our existence would be incoherent. The real concern
here is that our current behavior is maladaptive, not its
resistance to change. If extremely low-energy living was
the norm, then we would welcome its stability.
Behavioral inertia is also a feature essential to success-
ful carbon management. Consider the wedge concept
for keeping carbon in check  and, in particular, the
behavioral version that can provide three of the seven
wedges needed by changing everyday household activi-
ties . This approach already includes an expectation
of behavioral continuity. When viewed as a century-long
process, two things emerge. Most wedges must expand
over time to further reduce carbon emissions and, more
important behaviorally, changes that are adopted must
stay adopted. We already expect relative permanence
in changes made to infrastructure and policies, and
in fuel switching. But the wedges of behavior-driven
demand reduction also require long-term continuity.
Thus, behavioral stability, far from being an obstacle,
becomes a feature that we will come to rely on; we must
learn to leverage it.
Behavior emerges from a complex information-
A common social change theory begins with natural sci-
ence specifying the problem and needed solution, lead-
ing to policies seeking to change behavior. It is easy to
see the missing element here. Behavior emerges from
complex structures in the brain; interventions from sci-
ence–policy interactions are but one of many inputs to
The brain is an astonishingly complex information-
processing system, involving approximately 1011 neu-
rons and 1014 synapses, forming a massive neural net-
work with emergent properties. It does not only store
experience but also contains inherited structures and
tendencies. In this system, behavior is rarely a prede-
termined response to input stimuli. It proved adaptive
to place cognition between stimulus and response, and
to allow it to mediate our emotions. The effect of this
adaptation is an astounding ability. It allows us to over-
ride automatic functioning, whether based on innate
stimulus-driven patterns (e.g., inherited inclinations),
learned patterns (e.g., habits) or affect. We can contem-
plate alternate explanations for events, consider multiple
responses and explore initially weak alternatives instead
of jumping to first conclusions. These mental skills are
foundational, allowing us to make plans, carry them
out and behave with civility .
We might sometimes seem like a conflicted species,
with tension among cognition, instinct and emotion,
and stymied by behavioral continuity. Yet, we can
reframe this tension and inertia as equipoise: a capacity
to calmly monitor the environment, our thoughts, inten-
tions and possible behaviors, all while correcting any
preconceptions. Such a capability did not have to evolve,
but it did. Because of it, humans can steadfastly pursue
goals in complex, changing and emotionally charged
environments. Unfortunately, it also makes changing
people’s behavior a slow and humbling process.
The multiple causes offer behavior change
We have a great many options for changing behavior
but seem only to emphasize a few. To see what we are
missing, consider three categories of psychological con-
structs, each varying in the degree to which they remain
stable over time:
Category 1: Included here are such constructs as atti-
tudes, and both declarative knowledge (i.e., know
Slow wins: patience, perseverance & behavior change Editorial
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why) and procedural knowledge (i.e., know how). We
focus most of our attention here both in our efforts
to change these variables and in lamenting their
weakness in effect and their instability over time (e.g.,
attitudes change and knowledge fades). The wavering
of attitudes about climate change  recently caused
concern. But such change is predictable. For instance,
the recent drop in support of global warming as a
national priority in the USA occurred at a time of
dramatic competition for our attention (e.g., a
national election and a great recession). However,
even without competition, it is common for con-
structs in this category to vary over time, since they
are labile. This instability is appreciated by the public
themselves; when asked about their attitudinal cer-
tainty, only those at the extremes of attitude about
climate change (i.e., alarmed or dismissive) reported
that they were unlikely to change their mind ;
Category 2: A collection of more stable constructs
including norms (social, personal, descriptive and
injunctive) , various aspects of sense of responsibil-
ity and efficacy (self and group) and intrinsic satisfac-
tions (competence, frugality and participation) .
The modification of cultural norms provides insight
about the speed of enduring change. Humans have
witnessed the changing of many norms including
establishing the rights of common people versus the
monarchy, the elimination of enslavement as an
acceptable practice and the emergence of civil rights.
More recent examples include increase in seatbelt
usage and cessation of smoking in most venues. There
is no guarantee that changes in norms are permanent,
but there is a conservative inclination at work here
reflecting a universal human concern for predictabil-
ity . One common feature, and a lesson we might
draw, is that normative change happens slowly; some
changes take centuries and most take at least
Category 3: This slow-to-change notion applies all
the more to the third category of constructs that have
pronounced stability. These deep cognitive structures,
which include such things as values, worldviews, vir-
tues and character strengths (e.g., wisdom, courage,
humanity, justice, temperance and transcend-
ence) , ought to be hard to change. If they changed
easily and/or often, we might take it as a sign of
pathology, certainly as a sign that the person is not
These examples are far from exhaustive; many other
psychological constructs exist, each offering a means to
influence behavior. But even the few constructs men-
tioned give a sense for the broad space within which
we can affect behavior. Furthermore, research offers
an unusual logic at work here: none of them alone are
sufficient, none are necessary, yet all are useful. Only a
few are easily manipulated and even fewer lend them-
selves to a top-down approach. In addition, in what is
perhaps a key issue for environmental stewardship, they
have varying relationships with durable behavior. If we
start with continuity of behavior as our goal, then we
might ask how tightly connected each category is with
such behavior. While no such fixed wiring exists in the
brain owing to its plasticity, there are plausible relation-
ships. The first category would be only weakly related to
enduring behavior, while the second and third categories
would be more tightly connected. Thus, it seems that
if we seek behavior change that sticks then we should
emphasize the latter two categories. Unfortunately, this
has not been our approach.
Commonly, when seeking to change behavior, we
focus on a small set of strategies directed at the first
category. We attempt to alter people’s attitudes or try to
educate them. We use instructional, informational and
media campaigns, or use rules, regulations and incen-
tives. Yet, if these strategies worked as well as we had
hoped and needed them to, then we would not need
to consider the other categories. Certainly, the failure
here rests not with human nature but on too narrow an
approach to changing behavior. These common strate-
gies tend to be top-down, delivery-based approaches.
Such efforts to induce change often fail because the
message, as delivered, fails to connect with the existing
mental models, goals and inclinations of the intended
receivers. Rather than trying to insert our ideas, beliefs
and goals into the minds of others we should help people
to build their own understanding of the situation , a
slow but sure strategy.
Less commonly we focus on the second category,
altering the context of behavior or making aspects
of that context more salient (e.g., linking behavioral
opportunities to innate concerns and motives). The
strategies used here include social and norm market-
ing, persuasion and, less frequently, the aforementioned
rules, regulations and incentives. While still delivery
based, there is a greater appreciation of the information
exchange that goes on in person–environment inter-
actions. Humans are often trying to discover what is
expected of them, what they will be competent at doing
and what behaviors are compatible with their deeper
motives and goals. The strategies used seek to make
such discovery easier.
It is uncommon to attend to the third category.
Strategies here seek to activate and amplify inherited
inclinations. A delivery-based approach makes no sense;
we must facilitate involvement as a lifelong enterprise.
We still alter the context of behavior but with the intent
Carbon Management (2011) 2(6)
future science group
Editorial De Young
of creating conditions that support long-term cogni-
tive engagement. Change emerges slowly because it is
understood that participation, while essential, cannot
be forced or rushed.
Slow wins for lasting change
There are a number of fascinating approaches being
developed that are based on up-to-date models of human
behavior. They utilize all three categories described
above but emphasize the latter two. Some of the more
interesting approaches are derived from Lewin’s pio-
neering work on using citizen meetings, first to present
people with the problem and then to give them the time
and support needed to develop local solutions . An
excellent update, targeted for environmental steward-
ship, was done by Matthies and Kromker . Examples
that show great promise include a community-based
intervention called Ecoteams  and a recent approach
that leverages intrinsic values .
The arguments for our not just accepting, but embrac-
ing slow change and a modest role for experts such as
ourselves, have been developed by a number of research-
ers [18,19]. However, it would be wrong to think that
small experiments and slow change mean that only small
steps can be taken. A behavior-change process called
adaptive muddling stresses this subtle but important dif-
ference . When contemplating their response, people
need not privilege the status quo by investigating only
marginal behavior change. The rate of adoption may
be slow but this process supports people exploring, and
thus prefamiliarizing themselves with, life-changing
adaptations. Furthermore, while the impact from any
one group’s change may be modest, the process sup-
ports simultaneously exploring many changes at once,
each drawing on the knowledge and experience people
already have (suggesting the importance of listening,
an activity easily neglected when we believe it urgent to
change others’ behavior). People are thus empowered
to apply local and personal knowledge to a situation,
creating a variety of locally compatible responses.
Behavior change happens but durable change hap-
pens only slowly. What is unnerving is that our environ-
mental problems are urgent, perhaps accelerating. This
might give rise to intolerance for the slow-change notion
being suggested. But, in fact, the opposite response is
needed from us. The transition we face must be done
well the first time with the changes made durable; it is
unlikely we will get a second chance.
Thus, what is called for is a balance between urgency
and patience. Urgency is a matter of established fact for
anyone well informed, but the need for patience is rarely
mentioned. This need emerges from understanding that
the less-used strategies, such as facilitating participation
or altering the social context of behavior, produce stable
but slow-to-emerge behavior.
As experts, we seem prone to a deep cynicism about
the prospect of changing behavior in time to avert
catastrophe. It would seem, then, that what needs to
change first is something in us. We can anticipate the
aid of behavioral continuity as we alter social norms and
leverage existing values. But to be of real help, we need
to draw upon our own character strengths of courage
to be patient with the process of behavior change, and
steadfastness to persevere through the doubt that others
hold about human nature.
Financial & competing interests disclosure
The author has no relevant affiliations or financial involvement with
any organization or entity with a financial interest in or financial
conflict with the subject matter or materials discussed in the manu-
script. This includes employment, consultancies, honoraria, stock
ownership or options, expert t estimony, grants or patents received or
pending, or royalties. No writing assistance was utilized in the pro-
duction of this manuscript.
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