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  • Most of us know what we should be doing to make the world a better place – reduce our carbon footprint, minimise our plastic use, buy ethically, protect wildlife – but it’s often easier said than done. In this story, we meet Dr Wokje Abrahamse whose research is helping change the way we think about behaviour change.

    This is part of the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, meeting New Zealand women working at the intersection of people and nature. These stories are a feature for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020.

    Behaviour change easier said than done

    Dr Wokje Abrahamse has always been interested in both people and the environment and is now an environmental psychologist at Victoria University, Wellington.

    “I started studying psychology because I was interested in people and have always had an interest in the environment. So environmental psychology was a nice fit, and at the time, it was still an emerging field.”

    Now, she leads research into how to encourage pro-environmental behaviours. The idea that simply giving people more information is enough to change their beliefs or behaviour is called the information deficit or science knowledge deficit model. Wokje’s research is adding to the increasing evidence that the deficit model is flawed as it doesn’t capture the complex social and psychological reasons behind why people act as they do. Wokje has heard all the arguments for and against behaviour change programmes.

    “Often, the assumption is that all we need to do is raise awareness and change people’s minds and then behaviour change will magically follow and that’s not necessarily the case.”

    In 2019, she published a book, Encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: What works, what doesn’t, and why, to help academics, policy makers and community groups working to restore and protect our environment.

    “In part, the book is about bringing together the theory and the practice. So doing away with some of the assumptions about what motivates people, really thinking about what motivates different behaviours and, through that, design more effective behaviour change interventions.”

    The importance of multiple perspectives

    Wokje is interested in how we talk about pro-environmental behaviours, the pathways and messages we use and whether pro-environmental behaviour in one area can lead to behaviour change in others. She believes that solutions to behaviour change won’t come from a single source.

    “Science is only one part of understanding environmental problems. Of course, we need a scientific understanding of what is happening, why it is happening and what we can do about it. But I think any sort of solution to, for example, climate change or pollution, water pollution and so on requires different perspectives. Science is one perspective, but I think the social sciences or advocacy or community engagement are also really important, as are Māori perspectives and mātauranga Māori and different world views.”

    While her book may be intended for policy makers and practitioners, she is passionate about the impact we can have as individuals.

    “I think there’s a hidden power that we have in different ways. You can do things that will make a difference, like you can elect politicians who have a specific climate-friendly policy. Well, I think that we can make a difference, and often I think we perhaps underestimate how big that impact can be.”

    Related content

    The article Understanding kaitiakitanga helps explain the Māori world view of relating to the world around us

    The article Working as a scientist provides a brief overview of some of the many scientists featured on the Hub. Use it to discover some of the reasons people choose a science-related career and some of the things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.

    Explore our articles and activities written specifically to support teaching the Nature of science, included is The ‘Participating and contributing’ strand.

    Wicked problems

    Wicked problems are problems that are incredibly complicated and difficult to solve, but they make for a great classroom inquiry activity. Why not try Climate change – a wicked problem for classroom inquiry or 1080 – a wicked problem with your class. The article Climate action looks at how we are working for change at global, national and personal/public levels.

    Plastic is also a wicked problem. It’s incredibly useful, but it’s also a huge environmental issue. A helpful resource is Thinking about plastic – planning pathways, which includes our interactive planning pathway. Use this to begin a cross-curricular look at plastics.

    This class case study provides an example of introducing ethical thinking into the classroom to explore a controversial issue in science. In this example, year 12 students consider the issue of euthanasia. The Ethics thinking toolkit or the Futures thinking toolkit could be used to support students in their inquiries.

    Is adding fluoride to drinking water a question that focuses on science or on societal values? What about Genetically modified foods? Explore these issues and more with your students.

    Useful links

    Listen to this 2021 Radio NZ Our Changing World interview with Wokje looking at how there are some effective – and less effective – ways to encourage people to change their habitual behaviours.

    Use these Pinterest boards we created for more profiles of people working in science.


    This article was written by Anastasia Turnbull.

      Published 7 February 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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