The event’s theme — “Psychology’s Contributions to
Sustainable Development: Challenges and Solutions for the
Global Agenda” — was especially timely, said co-chair Rashmi
Jaipal, PhD, who represents APA at the U.N. and teaches
psychology at Bloomfield College in New Jersey.
The U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which call for
halving extreme poverty, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS,
ensuring universal primary education and reaching other
targets by 2015, are coming to a close, Jaipal said. Now, the U.N.
and its partners are busy crafting a post-2015 development
“We’re witnessing a historic process,” said Jaipal, citing
a shift in emphasis from economic development to healthy
human development. “And psychology has an integral role to
play in conceptualizing policies that foster sustainable, human-centered development.”
Promoting a person-centered approach
Historically, the U.N. and related institutions have not taken
advantage of psychological science as much as they should have,
said Saths Cooper, PhD, president of the International Union
of Psychological Science. Instead, they have relied on economic
modeling, even after the global economic crisis revealed that
Psychology, which Cooper described as the “science that
underpins all that we think, do and commit to do,” tends to be
overlooked for several reasons. For one, there’s often a fear of
psychology’s power, with people worrying that psychologists
can read their minds or will analyze them, Cooper said.
Another problem is the tendency to associate psychology only
with mental illness. While treating mental illness is important,
he said, psychology is such a broad discipline that it touches
every aspect of life. “There is no field of human endeavor that
psychology does not inform,” he said.
Psychology is now beginning to apply its insights on
motivation and other psychological factors to sustainable
development, said Shankar, the event’s keynote speaker.
In her role at the White House, Shankar is helping
government agencies achieve their goals by drawing on insights
from the social and behavioral sciences. Among the groups
she is working with are the U.S. Agency for International
Development and the Departments of Veterans Affairs,
Education, and Health and Human Services. “Their response
has been overwhelming,” she says.
Developing simple interventions based on sound
psychological research and the methods of psychological science
has already helped address development concerns in other parts
of the world, such as increasing access to safe water, motivating
families to send their kids to school and boosting agricultural
production, said Shankar.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, simply telling residents
how their energy use compared with their neighbors’ reduced
their energy consumption. To increase treatment compliance, a
program in Mozambique sends text messages to people infected
with both HIV and tuberculosis to remind them to take their
medications on time and show up for doctor appointments.
And in Kenya, researchers examined what was responsible
for the discrepancy between farmers’ intentions to use modern
fertilizers and their failure to do so. To help farmers overcome the
human tendency to value immediate rather than future rewards,
a program now allows farmers to buy vouchers for fertilizers at
harvest time when they’re flush with cash rather than later when
they’ve spent their funds on other priorities. As a result, farmers
now have access to fertilizer when planting season rolls around.
Psychological science could also help stop climate change,
one of the world’s greatest challenges, said Elke U. Weber, PhD,
founder of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions
at Columbia University.
Most climate change initiatives assume that telling people
about the risks of climate change will prompt behavior change,
she explained. But that approach doesn’t work because it
overlooks psychological factors (see June Monitor cover story).
For one thing, fighting climate change requires both short-
and long-term action. “The short-term comes easy to us,” said
Weber. “But the long-term focus comes hard. It isn’t natural
and requires attention.” Fighting climate change also demands
trade-offs, which people tend to dislike. “No one wants to
destroy planet Earth, but other goals get in the way,” she said,
pointing to economic development as an example. Plus, she
said, people tend to rely on their emotions rather than rational
The result of these psychological phenomena is what Weber
called “an enormous status quo bias.” People tend to keep doing
what they’ve always done because it “hasn’t killed us yet, so it’s
not that risky,” she said. “But with sustainability, business as
usual isn’t safe.”
How to change the status quo? Make the environmentally
friendly action the default, said Weber. Bold policy changes,
such as a carbon tax or New York City’s public smoking ban,
may initially prompt opposition but soon become the new
status quo, said Weber. She also called for using a “silver
buckshot” approach — asking all societal sectors to contribute
solutions that focus on the positive consequences of change and
empower people with effective choices.
For Merry Bullock, PhD, senior director of APA’s Office of
International Affairs, the event demonstrated the value of APA’s
presence at the U.N.
“APA’s seven representatives to the United Nations work on
a volunteer basis to bring psychological science and knowledge
to U.N. deliberations, documents and decisions,” she says.
“Psychology Day is one of the flagship events.” n
For more information about APA’s work at the United Nations,
Rebecca A. Clay is a journalist in Washington, D.C.