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Designing for behavior change

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Jan 21, 2013 05:00 AM

Dual flush toilets are, in my opinion, a great water-saving invention. Yet one of my biggest pet peeves is a type of dual flush toilet that I often see in public bathrooms. In this particular design, to use less water, you push the flush handle up; to use more water, you push it down.

Yet most people's typical flushing action, molded by lifelong experience with standard toilet designs, is to push the handle down.

Badly designed dual flush toilet

Thus, the majority of flushers, regardless of their environmental sensibilities, will likely miss the fine print or sign above the toilet and use the maximum amount of water by default, even though there is an option to use less water.

I gave this example because it illustrates how important design can be in influencing behavior. Here's another: at a reception, giving attendees conical paper beverage cups means that instead of leaving their cups lying about on surfaces, they'll carry them around or, when finished, dispose of them in a waste basket, since a cone-shaped cup can't be left on a table or windowsill.

Good dual flush toilet designA new study out in the journal PLOS ONE offers a glimpse into how the field of psychology could help support designers and engineers trying to influence environmental behavior. In the study, researchers at the University of British Columbia compared student waste disposal actions in two cafeterias. Both cafeterias possessed recycle, compost, and waste bins, but one cafeteria was in a LEED-certified green building, the other in a normal building.

It turns out students in the LEED-certified building cafeteria were better at disposing of their waste in the proper container -- over 15 percent better. The lead author on the paper, David Wu, thinks psychologists, by conducting more experiments to isolate what factors in the LEED building led people to behave differently, could help designers and engineers improve many types of buildings to encourage more environmentally-sound behavior.

I know some of you are thinking that people eating in a green building cafeteria might be self-selecting. But the researchers also determined through interviews that students eating in the LEED certified building were not biased to be pro-environment. That is, they didn't choose to eat in that cafeteria because they care about the environment or studied environmental issues, but primarily because it was in a convenient location, near work or class.

Coffee cupWhy did eaters in the green building behave differently, then? In the paper, Wu, a research assistant in psychology at the University of British Columbia, and his co-authors referred to a phenomenon called "embodied cognition effects," which basically means the environment around you affects how you think and act. For example, it's been shown that people who are holding a warm beverage, or who are physically warm, act more warmly towards others. Similarly, certain aspects of a green building may lead people to think -- and act -- more environmentally when throwing out their trash.

"I think one of the things we took away from this research is that the building itself doesn't really need to be sustainable … as long as it is promoting a message that you care and that there is an intent for you to act sustainably," says Wu.

More experiments in this field can help determine what aspects of a "green" building trigger "green" behavior, he says. It could simply be something like changing the color or lighting around recycling stations, or putting up signs that make people think more about how their choices affect the environment. Those things could be done in non-LEED buildings as well.

Of course, the findings aren't just limited to waste disposal. Some design solutions are as simple as changing default temperatures on washing machines so that users must actively choose to use extra energy to heat the water more, while others involve changing how users think about their environment. In the UK, an experiment called CarbonCulture aims to reduce non-domestic building energy use by integrating an energy-focused social network, which includes games encouraging people to use less energy, and with things like live displays showing building energy use so users and facilities managers see what in the building uses a lot of energy, and when. So far, participants in the test building are having a great time -- and reducing their carbon emissions.

In the absence of a national or international plan to reduce carbon emissions, those who care about climate change are looking for other solutions. Psychologists -- and designers -- may offer a way forward.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Image of bad toilet flush design courtesy Flickr user Tony Crider. Image of good design courtesy Flickr user Eli Duke.

Image of coffee cup courtesy Shutterstock.

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