Academic Profile: Sander van der Linden, Ph.D.

Posted on March 4, 2015

Sander van der Linden, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer

Department of Psychology, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. 

How do you define sustainability?

A classic textbook definition would probably go something along the lines of; “sustainability is the science of advancing quality of life on earth in a way that does not compromise the carrying capacity of our planet’s eco-systems”. To me, however, sustainability is ultimately about human judgments, choices and behaviors. It’s fundamentally a problem that involves human psychology, it’s about the way we perceive and define ourselves relative to the natural world. Sustainability, by and large, is about human-environment interactions.

How is sustainability a part of your research and why?

My research program explores the psychological basis of pro-environmental behavior. Why do some people inherently care more about the environment than others? Where do “pro-environmental” personality traits come from? Through a combination of both observation and experimentation, I study the origins and evolution of environmental values, norms, attitudes and behaviors. Given widespread awareness of global environmental problems, why do many people still fail to act or refuse to change their behavior? In my research, I try to learn more about the psychological factors and conditions that lead people to make more (or less) sustainable choices and decisions. For example, here at Princeton I work closely with the Office of Sustainability to find ways to promote and encourage more sustainable behavior on campus. I also investigate how people think about and perceive complex environmental risks (e.g., climate change). For example, to what degree do personal experiences with extreme weather conditions influence our thoughts and emotions about global warming? What is the best way to publicly communicate information about ecological risks, how do people value and connect to nature, what psychological benefits do green environments have on human well-being and happiness? In short, I study the behavioral foundations of sustainability. I study environmental psychology.

What advice would you offer to students seeking to focus on or incorporate sustainability in their careers?

In a nutshell, take my course (WWS 586C / ENE 561) “The Psychology of Environmental Decision-Making”. It’s a new and exciting course where we interactively explore a wide range topics, from environmental perception and decision-making to the psychological foundations of pro-environmental values, attitudes and behaviors. From modeling group decision-making in natural resource dilemmas to the science of effective environmental communication and ultimately, considering the role of the environment in human well-being and happiness. Projects involve conducting your own experiments as well as lectures from some great guest speakers.