What are the best theories of Environmental Behaviour Change?

Written by Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011


Because all behaviour is the result of many factors and can be complex to understand, no single model or theory constitutes an all encompassing ‘understandascope.’ An effective model can however help improve our insights into behaviour and how to change it. Using flow diagrams, pictures or word descriptions, a model can help create a simpler mental image of the relationships between factors that influence behaviour, even though the underlying causes may not be fully understood.


Some models used to promote pro-environmental behaviour concentrate on individual behaviour change and are similar to those used to get people to change an ingrained individual habit like smoking. Others have an interpersonal or community wide focus and try to take account of social influences or broader, structural influences such as how much of a resource is left, say water during a drought or the availability or cost of products such as solar panels.


Below are just a few of the most widely used behaviour change theories and models used in behaviour change for the environment.


Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour

Behaviour is driven by beliefs about the likely consequences of an action (favourable or unfavourable), perceived social pressure or subjective norms and perceived behavioural control over the action. The stronger these factors are, the more likely someone is to form a behavioural intention to do the action and consequently, act.



Ajzen, I. (1985). From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behavior. In J. Kuhl & J. Beckman (Eds.), Action-control: From Cognition to Behavior (pp 11-39). Heidelberg: Springer.



Andreasen’s Social Marketing model

Marketing concepts and techniques are applied to achieve specific behavioral goals for a social good.Social science and policy strategies may also be integrated with this approach.

The primary focus is on learning what people in a specific target group want and need rather than trying to persuade them to adopt what we happen to be offering.



Andreasen, A.R. (1995). Marketing Social Change: Changing Behavior to Promote Health, Social Development, and the Environment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Gifford’s Social Dilemma System model

Individuals and groups use resources along a continuum that ranges from pure community or environmental interest to pure self interest and face social dilemmas in which these interests appear to come into conflict with each other. A comprehensive model explains influences on decision making which include geophysical, governance, interpersonal, decision maker, and dilemma awareness influences that impact on the type of strategies people use to make decisions about cooperation. Outcomes exist for both the decision maker (e.g., satisfaction, anger, regret) and the environment (e.g., whether a resource is depleted or sustained or contributions made to the public good).



Gifford, R. (2008). Toward a comprehensive model of social dilemmas. In A. Biel, D. Eek, T. Garling, & M. Gustaffson (Eds), New Issues and Paradigms in Research on Social Dilemmas, pp265-280. NY: Springer.



Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations theory

Focuses on how ideas are spread throughout a culture. Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. People vary in their willingness to adopt innovations and may be early or late adopters, progressing through various stages.



Rogers, E.M. (2003). (5th ed). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.



Stern’s Value Belief Norm (VBN) theory

For those behaviours not strongly constrained by contextual forces, individual choice about pro-environmental actions can be driven by personal norms - an internalized sense of obligation to act in a certain way. Norms are activated when an individual believes that violating them would have adverse effects on things they value and that by taking action, they would bear significant responsibility for those consequences. Personal values (e.g., altruistic values, egoistic values) are antecedents of environmental beliefs.



Stern, P.C. (2000). Towards a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 407-424.