For the past ten years, environmental studies professor Christie Manning has made a point of spending summer days at the Minnesota State Fair – not for deep-fried snacks-on-a-stick, but for the opportunity to conduct survey research on the psychology of sustainable behavior.
Manning’s academic background in cognitive psychology has allowed her to approach environmental issues from a new perspective.
Her research both asks what psychological factors prevent or encourage people to act sustainably, and considers whether or not sustainability outreach programs make a significant impact on people’s choices or understanding of the environmental impact of their actions. The Great Minnesota Get-Together is her petri dish.
Manning began the project in 2005 in partnership with professors Elise Amel and Britain Scott of St. Thomas University. The group was recruited by the Minnesota Living Green Expo, a then-active environmental outreach event eager to collect data on whether or not their organization was making a difference.
Inspired, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) offered the team the opportunity to conduct similar research at their Eco Experience building at the State Fair only three years later. “Essentially what the [MPCA] wanted to know was the same thing,” she said. “What does this event mean to the people who visit it, and is it having any sort of tangible change on people’s thinking or their actions?”
Manning has conducted State Fair research every year since, gathering survey data on attendees’ personal responses to climate change and their level of motivation to act sustainably in their daily lives. In doing so, she accounts for personal factors like political bias and experience with sustainable action.
“I have found in my research with two students here,” Manning said, “that the strongest predictor of whether people feel empathy in response to victims of climate change is whether you’re liberal leaning or conservative leaning.
“That’s not because conservative people can’t feel empathy in response to the plight of someone experiencing a flood,” she continued. “It’s that the code-word ‘climate change’ signals a particular reaction to issues in general.”
One of the students involved with helping to conduct the research is Hannah Hoffman ’19, who joined the project over two years ago – seeing it as an opportunity to better understand how to communicate about environmental issues to people of all political ideologies.
“Sometimes this research can be kind of sad and make you feel kind of doomsday-y, but it can also be hopeful,” Hoffman said. “Research shows that most people now know that climate change is real, and still aren’t taking action. So the question we’re asking is, how do we get them to take action?”
Manning’s aims are similar.
“We have to become familiar with the opinions we don’t hold ourselves so that we can overcome partisanship,” she said. “For me climate change is an entry point into understanding and beginning to dismantle that partisanship.”
In addition to examining the role of partisan bias in environmental issues, Manning’s research considers the issue of a perceived lack of personal competence as a determinant for whether or not people will engage in sustainable behavior. Her data has shaped the way the MPCA approaches their Eco Experience programming.
“It’s very important for people to feel competent in what they do,” MPCA opinion researcher and Macalester alum Cathy Jensen ’81 wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. Several of the exhibits at the fair provide an opportunity for visitors to try something and gain competency in a fun atmosphere.
“For example, in the alternative transportation area, we have a model of the front of an MTC bus with a bike rack and a bike,” she continued. “A staff member shows visitors how to attach a bike to the rack and visitors can practice. They are more likely to ride a bike [or] take the bus if the first time they are putting the bike on the rack is not with a busload of onlookers.”
Hoffman’s involvement with Manning’s research has inspired reflection on Macalester’s own efforts to normalize sustainability.
“Macalester makes it really easy to be sustainable and to go along with preventing climate change – which is awesome – but I think people do it without even thinking about it, so they don’t have to make any life changes. I think it’s important to think intentionally about it.”
While Manning is proud to be a part of an institution that prioritizes sustainable living, she acknowledged that there is always more work to be done.
“Macalester is a leader in many ways, but students in my class express every year frustration with where we are compared to where we could be,” she said. “Even at a place like Macalester where we’re doing a lot and we are leaders, there’s much more we can be doing. And the amount we’re doing is not commensurate with the problems we’re facing.”
At the conclusion of its thirteenth year, Manning’s research is still far from finished.
“The research always continues,” She said. “Because no matter what we find, there are new questions that the results introduce.”