An Interview with Atar Herziger, Postdoctoral Researcher in Behavior and Sustainability


To start things off, would you like to give a bit of a summary about your background?

Sure–so, I am from Israel originally. My bachelor’s degree is from Israel, in psychology and business administration, dual major, and then I did my master’s in organizational psychology. I did my PhD in Germany in social and economic psychology and that’s where I started researching consumer behavior more specifically. And then here, I am currently in my second year of a post-doc position in the college of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) which is jointly funded by ENR and the Sustainability Institute. And that position is about behavior and sustainability, and I work with people really across campus. So I work with people at ENR, but also marketing, some folks in the engineering department as well…about kind of different ways in which we can look at how sustainability impacts people’s behavior and how people’s behavior potentially could impact sustainability. 

So it’s interesting to me that you’re in ENR, but it sounds like you’re coming more from an economics and psychology background. How did you end up going in this direction?

Well, I guess social psychology tends to be either very theoretical or very applied, and a lot of people that study psychology or social psych end up going into marketing where they look at consumer behavior. I was interested in consumer behavior but in an aspect that was a little bit more pro-social or pro-environmental and so the position at ENR was a good fit for me. Half of the faculty there basically are social scientists. Some are psychologists or sociologists, so there are a lot of people there that also do these social science related, kind of applied problem solving. 

Given that they seem to define a lot of your research, what exactly do the terms pro-social and pro-environmental mean to you?

Generally speaking when we talk about pro-social or pro-environmental behavior (some people group pro-environmental as part of pro-social, because at the end of the day, pro-environmental behavior helps society at large) as generally behaviors where the motivation to increase your own well-being is maybe not at the forefront but the motivation to help others might be at the forefront. So more like altruistic behaviors that are a lot of the times researched in the domains of charitable giving for example, which could be giving of time, or money, or other sorts of goods. And then pro environmental behavior which a lot of the times comes at a personal cost to us, right? If we decide to conserve a resource, usually that requires us to compromise on our needs. If we decide to recycle a resource, usually that is associated with an effort on our part. So those are the kinds of behaviors, that we define them differentially. We say pro-social or pro-environmental because usually they come with a cost. And usually people don’t stumble upon those behaviors but they do so because they’re either motivated to, or because something in the context around them in their environment promotes or triggers that behavior to happen. 

What do you think is the path forward, in terms of implementing sustainable change? It seems like, when we look at examples of the most successful sustainable communities, the common thread is always the behavior of the people, and their dedication to their sustainable practices. On the other hand, I’ve come across an example of recycling receptacles which auto-sorts waste for you, and I wonder, is that really the answer? Instead, how do we navigate the task of leading people to integrate these more sustainable behaviors into their daily life?

So there are a lot of I think potential pathways to solutions, and I don’t think the research knows what the pathway is. And a lot of the times you see in social psych the answer is: It depends. Like it depends on the person, depends on the context, depends on the behavior at hand, depends on a lot of things. Generally speaking I will say when you kind of bring up these solutions that are more structural, like a machine that sorts your waste for you, those are solutions that go around the person. They don’t target the person because you’re not requested to change your behavior at all. You just throw your waste into one receptacle in any case and the machine does the work for you. There are other types of these structural solutions that are just you know if we eliminated all the single use plastics from campus we wouldn’t have a problem with people trying to recycle plastics that aren’t recyclable, for example, as a structural solution. And those are good solutions, don’t get me wrong— they have a huge impact, but usually they require a lot of policy work to get them implemented. And in the U.S. I think that’s incredibly difficult because there are a lot of people who don’t see the value in those solutions or who see the costs of them mainly. and not so much the value. Other solutions can be solutions that directly deal with the person. And so those are the more of the cognitive level solutions, where you talk about: how do you teach people something? How do you give them knowledge about something that they didn’t have? A lot of the research that I, at least, look at, in the realms of realms of environmental psychology or consumer behavior, sustainable consumer behavior show that knowledge is usually not enough to change behavior. When you teach people about, for example, conserving energy, then they’ll become more knowledgeable about consuming energy or conserving it but they won’t necessarily change their behaviors. And so there’s a big distinction between what we know and what we do. And so that brings to the kind of final sorts or types of solutions, that are behavioral solutions. That’s, how do you trigger behavior change? And there are a bunch of different ways to go about it. I think a lot of what we see on campus today is directed at knowledge, and directed at social norms. So when you see messages about “Green Buckeyes,” that is supposed to really trigger your identity, your social identity, as a Buckeye, as part of the university, as part of the student body, and so you’re supposed to feel this sense of moral obligation to be in line with whatever messaging comes after that “Green Buckeyes” statement. But that doesn’t always work, right? Because as individuals we have different sets of social identities. They’re usually not just one. We don’t only see ourselves as Buckeyes, but we see ourselves as a daughter, a friend, a student, an employee at some place, whatever…a save the Whales person, even! We could have a bunch of different social identities and it’s really hard to figure out what the key one is that you want to trigger in messaging. So, I think that we have that a lot on campus, and I don’t think necessarily that’s the best solution. Some of the research that I’m currently doing with Grant Donnelly, who’s an assistant professor in the marketing department, also looks at these kind of pro-social pro-environmental behaviors, is why is it that people sometimes even knowingly do the wrong thing when it comes to sustainability? So we have a project, for example, about over-recycling, where people recycle things that are not recyclable, and what we show is that they knowingly do this. A lot of the times they do it, knowing that this item is not recyclable where they are, but they either have this wishful thinking, or they think maybe it will still be processed, or sometimes they have this activist mindset, where they say if enough people put this into the recycling they’ll have to change the policies and this will be recyclable, or they just delegate that decision to someone later on in the process line, where they say “It’ll be sorted out if it’s a wrong decision…If it can’t be recycled and someone at the plant will sort this thing out.” But we also show in this research, we have kind of initial findings, where we ask why is it that people are so motivated to think that it’s okay to recycle things that aren’t recyclable? And we see that this is something that people do to regulate how they feel about themselves. So if we make them in the lab— and we’ve done this— we make people feel bad about themselves, because we give them bogus feedback about a task that they did, and we say you did you did poorly or you did less well than others, people are more likely to over-recycle. So they do this as a compensation mechanism. And so I think, kind of a long winded answer to the question, is that it’s not just about knowledge. It’s not just about your the norms in the current space and time where you’re trying to trigger someone. There are a lot of internal processes that go on that motivate people to behave in a particular way. And it’s very hard to obstruct that motivation and make them do something different. 

What latent elements of human behavior do you think are still being left unaccounted for, in the way we deal with waste on campus? What is the thing that we’re not hitting on? 

I’m sure there are a lot of things that we’re not hitting on. I think one of those, is what Grant and I are looking at, and that’s how you feel about yourself and how you want to compensate for your moral self-worth. And it’s just hard to tap into when you’re not doing it in a lab. So I think that’s one of the things, but similarly to that, there could be other things that are happening on an internal level. So for example, there’s research that shows that recycling makes people happy. So it might be that if you’re just having a bad day, you’re more motivated to recycle something, whether that thing is recyclable or not, for example. Potentially, if you’re already having a good day, and you don’t need to compensate for negative emotions in that place and time, then maybe you’re less likely to recycle, because you just don’t need the boost in positive emotion. That’s a hypothesis— I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, but I just think that that’s an example of things that are happening intrinsically inside, where it’s hard to know or it’s hard to measure what’s going on. 

Can you talk a little bit about the research you’ve done on the power of habit, and how that applies to people’s sustainable behaviors?

So I’ve done some research on habit, and habit is a really, really strong trigger for behavior for us. The way habits are created, is that initially, at some point in time in the past, you pursued a behavior because it met some goal that you had. So for example maybe I spent more money on a meal, because I thought it was a healthy meal and I have a goal to be healthy or to eat healthily. And when I spent that money on a meal, it was at a restaurant, for example. Now I’ve returned to that restaurant and other types of restaurants that are similar to that multiple times after having made that initial decision. The context around me when making that decision was fairly similar, and it was repeated over time. So, I was always sitting at a table, I always had a menu with me, there was always a waiter standing at the side of me asking what I would like to order. Maybe I was always with the same person at the restaurant, as well. 

When the contextual cues around us are repeated, and we make the same decision repeatedly, that’s what creates a habit. What happens is the decision becomes something that is no longer triggered by my goal. It’s triggered by the context around me. And so after a period of time— which, we don’t know what that period of time is, but people suggest it could be a couple of months, but we don’t know how many repetitions— after a period of time, my goals might change. Maybe I no longer really care about eating healthily. Now I care about eating cuisine that’s new to me, for example, I’d like to start eating novel foods. My habit might still be there. And I’ll need to break that habit by paying attention and stopping the behavior before it happens. Disrupting that behavior to rethink my goal and then rethink what decision I need to make in order for that goal to match the behavior. And that happens a lot of times when you change your context. 

So what you need to do is go to a different kind of restaurant, maybe one that you’ve never been before. Maybe eat at a tapas bar where you’re standing at a table, or not sitting down, maybe eat somewhere where instead of printed out menus, the menus are up on the wall. So in order to disrupt habit, what you really need— and this has been shown in research— is you need to disrupt the context. Because those contextual cues are what triggers the habitual behavior to happen, and you need to stop that from happening. So you can change the context around you, and it no longer triggers those behaviors. 

So how do you think this understanding of the power of habit can be applied, to actually guide people to change their behavior?

So I think it’s a two step process. The first step you want to do is to stop the old habit from happening. Great. So if people are buying single use cups for their coffee, for example, what you maybe want to do is change the context in which they usually buy those cups. If they’re buying them at like the terabyte cafe for example, maybe you switch where the cups are. Maybe you change the location of the drink on the menu. Maybe you no longer have the cups there to purchase but you have a separate stand for anything that comes with single use plastic, or specifically cups if that’s the issue. You want to change the environment in which people make that habitual decision to start with. Then you trigger thinking about, what is your goal, and is your goal sustainability? Then you have those messages that we see a lot, with the Green Buckeyes, which are like, “Think about your values. Think about the social norms. Think about the impact of your behavior.” Potentially give people more information that they maybe didn’t have before about the catastrophe of plastics in landfills. And then, what you do, is you’re really invoking that goal of being more sustainable. You want that behavior of purchasing just the refill coffee for example, in your MyCup, or whatever the solution may be. And then you want to rebuild a new habit. So you want that context to stay stable over time so that people no longer have to think about it. 

A classic example that’s often cited, is the way we used to handle glass milk bottles. They were used on a deposit, and then returned and re-used because people wanted their deposit back. What do you think is the balance between these sorts of economic benefits, and the pro-social ones we’ve discussed?

So some studies say that that works, and some studies say that they don’t, and that’s an important point. So there’s a there’s a really good paper in Nature that was written by Linda Steg, and they are Dutch research team, and they went to a gas station, and what they were trying to do is promote drivers to check the pressure of their tires. Because when you have low air pressure in your tires, you waste more fuel when driving your car. It just takes more energy to move the car. So they had four types of calls for action to get a free air pressure check for your tires. One was economics: so, do this so that you can save money at the gas pump. One was environmental: do this because it will save emissions. I think there was another one which was to do it for safety, if I’m not mistaken. And then there was a control condition where it was just free tire checks, so no motivation to do it necessarily. And you would expect, based on economic theory, that people would be motivated by the financial incentive and say, oh, free tire check, and I could save money at the pump. Yes I’ll do it. But actually what happens is that within that condition, when that signage was presented, the lowest amount of people actually came to do the tire check, and the highest amount came when they talked about doing it for the environment to save emissions. 

Now, there are some caveats here. First, they did this in Holland, which is a very green country. People are super motivated to be pro-environmental there, and it’s a big norm as well. And the second thing, is that what they say, is it’s not really that financial incentives don’t work, it’s that people don’t want to see themselves as greedy. And so potentially when that behavior is public, maybe people will shy away from the incentive a little bit more, because they don’t want to show or seem as if that’s what’s motivating them. A lot of times we’ll see that that motivation crowds out an internal motivation. So really when you give people both motivations, when you say, “Do this one behavior because it both helps the environment and it’ll save you money,” they might avoid the behavior because they don’t want to be seen by others as someone who’s motivated by the money. On the other hand, the same group of researchers several years later ran another study and found different results. They ran a similar study that was in a different context, and found different results. But what they found is that really, the type of signage or the type of messaging that motivates people depends on their values. So if you’re a really frugal person, and that’s important to your identity, you feel like that’s kind of something that leads your decisions in many aspects in life, then a financial incentive could very well be super motivating for you. But if you’re a super pro-environmental person, and you feel that’s a main part of your identity and frugal, not so much, then the environmental message will help. So there is a matter of congruence between what your identity is, and what the message that you’ve received is. 

I will say that we’re testing something really similar on campus right now with the attempt to reduce the ice that people use at the freestyle vending machines the Coke machine. So creating that ice and maintaining it takes energy, but a lot of the times people will fill up their cup with a ton of ice and then throw it out or throw much of it out, and they don’t use it. So what we’re trying to do is give people messages about, “You could you potentially use less ice in your drink.” And we’re doing an experiment where that messaging is either environmental, where we say, “using less of those ice cubes will save more of the ice caps” or we tell them, “using less of these ice cubes will give you more room in your drink for your coke” and maybe they just want more drink for their buck. So we’re testing that out. 

Do you want to talk a bit about the work you’ve done on consumption reduction?

Well one of the things I do have is a research paper currently under review, about an intervention study that we did for consumption reduction of material consumption. And we were really intrigued by the minimalism movement. We looked online and we saw all these videos and blogs about minimalism, and we noticed that a lot of the messaging was not pro-environmental. It was stress reduction. It was money saving. It was aesthetically pleasing. I mean, there are a lot of different reasons that are more egoistic or selfishly motivated to do a behavior, that’s actually very pro-environmental or could be pro-environmental (because you could also be a minimalist but change out half of your stuff every second day, and be like super carbon emitting, right?) But generally speaking, there is an option to live with less that is not motivated by an environmental concern. And so what we did, is we ran an intervention study on a mobile app. We had people sign up who were interested in reducing their consumption. So everyone had some motivation when they began the study, and then we gave them videos to watch on a daily basis that were basically mimicking these vlog style videos online on YouTube, that had the same presenter talk about how she adopted minimalism in her life and her challenges and what she did and how she did it. The only thing that changed between the two groups of participants that we had was that in one group the video would open and close with a statement by the presenter, which would be, the reason I’m doing this is to be pro environmental. I want to be environmentally conscious and I want to be responsible and I want to reduce my carbon footprint. And the other group got the same set of videos but the opening and closing were the presenters saying the reason I’m doing this is because I want to live with higher wellbeing. I want to be happier. I want to be less stressed. I want to have more financial resources. And we had a control group as well, that didn’t get any videos, and we just tracked what happened over a week of time (and again these are people that already have a motivation to reduce their consumption.) And what we actually found was a backfiring effect for a biosphere message for the environmental message. So we found that people who got this message about do this because it’s good for the environment dropped out more than people in the control condition. And they were less motivated at the end of the study and they reported less change in their actual purchasing behaviors. We did something fairly similar afterwards in the lab here at OSU and we gave people just two of those videos to watch and we looked at their intent to purchase something afterwards, and their likelihood to buy something that they maybe didn’t need. And we find the same effects. So we find that the biosphere call for action is less helpful for people sometimes than an incentive that is again, not not financial, necessarily, but just more selfish more egoistic. 

From your experience and observations, how do you think Zero-Waste culture is built?

Great question. I don’t know. I’ve not researched the Zero Waste community ever. I have read about anti-consumption and voluntary simplicity, and those can integrate a form of zero waste living, but I think zero waste can be very extreme as well. So it kind of depends on where you are on that spectrum. I do think a lot of these things, I hope they’re not trends, but they’re behaving as such. I mean there’s kind of a wave of it. There are early adopters of it and then it becomes like more people are adopting it. And I think it’s usually within the same social circles (that may be just anecdotal knowledge from my part and not research backed). But I do think that it has a lot to do with the social norms around you. And I think those social norms also, especially when it comes to zero waste, are probably associated with guilt as well. So zero-wasters to me, at least, seem to be kind of like vegetarians or vegans used to be perceived maybe 20 years ago, where they seemed to be like super radical and forcing their lifestyle upon other people. I don’t necessarily think that everyone who goes zero waste is forcing their lifestyle on anyone but I think that’s the perception of them, is that it’s a, well, cult is a strong word, but it’s a social movement that very seems to be very much triggered by the norms of the people around you, and potentially even just social pressure, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when the outcome is good, but you can be taken to an extreme as well. 

Do you think that guilt works? 

Great question. I think generally it depends, right? Again, it depends for whom. When you’re talking about slight guilt, or maybe like hinted guilt between the lines, in a group of people that have a very strong social identity and high cohesion as a group. Yeah. Guilt can work. I mean, think about within your family, if your family has a norm of not wasting food, for example, not leaving leftovers on your plate, then guilt totally works. You may be resentful about it, but in terms of behavior change, of course it works. And that’s a great example of a small social group that’s very cohesive usually, with strong social norms that you grow up with, and you’re kind of indoctrinated with. If we’re talking about a university setting, probably not so much. There are a lot of different groups or niches of students with different social identities. I’ve talked to students before, where I asked them, if we had a message about recycling, or whatever, and I referred to you as “Buckeyes” would you like that? And you know, a ton of people at ENR don’t. They say, those are all the folks that go to the football games, and we don’t consider ourselves to be like hardcore Buckeyes. Yes, we’re students of OSU but we’re also a million other things.