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2015.06.3
Can Psychology Promote Pro-environmental Behavior?

“Psychology of Environmental Sustainability” was a new undergraduate course designed by social science faculty Prof Kevin Tam and funded by the Center for Enhanced Learning and Teaching as an innovative teaching development project. Throughout the course, students from different schools worked in groups to select concepts in psychology of environmental sustainability, then designed and implemented campaigns to promote behavior in addressing on-campus environmental issues assigned by the HKUST Sustainability Unit.

During April and May, six groups of students worked closely with staff from the LG1 canteen, library and ITSC to design their campaigns tackling issues. In LG1 several groups focused on encouraging students to ask for the less rice option; other groups worked to reduce excessive printing in the computer barns; and a final group focused on recycling behaviors in the Refreshment Zone of the HKUST Library. After evaluation of the situations, and a thorough review of behavioral principles and insights, the groups designed interventions to test whether they could use these principles to alter behavior. Here are some of the highlights:

* Different table reminders and posters were designed using concepts of social norms to motivate diners to order less rice. Some designs attempted to nudge customers by emphasizing the positive aspects of following social norms, and some designed tried to influence by urging customers to avoid socially disapproved behaviors. During the intervention period, students found that these measures increased the less rice orders by 15% in one week. Moreover, half of the respondents were aware of the promotion and 75% of the customers said the posters were positive in reminding them to finish their food. 

* The project focusing on reducing the excessive printing looked at the root causes of wasted paper: forgetfulness, carelessness on print settings, and impatience. Three student groups were assigned to carry out their projects in computer barns A, B and C. They all took different approaches in designing their prompts to remind students to check settings before printing. One group designed notes with a sad tree image (to create a feeling of empathy) to stick on monitors. Unfortunately, this approach backfired when users expressed frustration for being unfairly blamed. The second group put up a board outside Barn B to share students’ commitments to reducing printing, added a print budget icon on the home screen wallpaper showing a negative $500 budget to symbolize wasted paper costs, and designed a reminder note for the monitor with a cute cartoon icon. They found that their efforts successfully reduced the waste paper amount by 59% during the week. The third group put their designed User Guide on each computer desk to teach students on Quick Print setting, and a happy tree graphic reminder inviting Barn C users to check setting first. This group found that the user guide was not effective, but the icons did catch people’s attention. All in all, each of the three groups found that their active efforts did contribute to the change – even if only briefly – in behaviors.

* The set of recycling bins inside the refreshment zone of our library, near to trash bins and vending machines, are seldom used. Why? After careful observation of the habits of people coming into the area, the group found that the design of the bins themselves were to blame. Even though they were in a prominent location and well-marked, they appear more like cabinets under a workstation. The group tested the theory by adding visible prompts and pointers to the containers and found that when the bins were made more obvious, the recycling increased from 30% to 75%. They also found that removing additional trash bins from the area, the rates went up even further. 

What’s better than having our students contribute to campus sustainability by engaging their peers through the study? Instead of theoretical learning, this course was unique in turning our campus into a learning laboratory by providing valuable opportunities for UST students to apply their knowledge on real-campus issues, and by testing various psychological techniques and evaluating their effectiveness. We are also grateful to learn that just being part of this course made the students think more carefully about their own sustainable actions in their real life. Thank you to all of them! 

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Table reminders in LG1 canteen were designed to nudge customers by urging them to avoid socially disapproved behaviors.
One student group added a print budget icon on the home screen wallpaper in Barn B showing a negative $500 budget to symbolize wasted paper costs.
Students designed happy tree graphic reminder inviting Barn C users to check setting first to reduce waste paper.
The group tested the theory by adding visible prompts and pointers to the containers and found that when the bins were made more obvious, the recycling increased from 30% to 75%.

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