Sufficiency… what? A psychological view


On May 13th I presented in the trans>>lab colloquium what I am working on in the exciting field of Environmental Psychology. Here is a short summary of the topic I am interested in. Thanks to the colloquium members and guests we had quite some inspiring discussions. I tried to incorporate the questions that came up during the colloq into this summary. So, here it is:

Getting straight on what sufficiency is…

Sufficiency is often mentioned together with efficiency and consistency. Only combined the three strategies can lead to a reduction of resource use in the endeavor of reaching a sustainable level of overall consumption. While efficiency improves the input output ratio (less resource input for the same service output) and consistency strives for best possible reuse of non-degradable wastes and materials, the sufficiency strategy aims at reducing the demand on the consumer side. Sufficiency means to be content with the sufficient, to have a sense of ‘enough’ instead of consuming ever more.

There are multiple reasons and outlooks how sufficiency offers a great potential of increasing quality of life, happiness and leading a ‘good life’ (e.g. Princen, 2005; Sachs, 1993, Stengel, 2010). However, there’s no common understanding so far, what sufficiency is precisely and how to detect that a person is living in a sufficiency manner.

Psychology looks at individual behavior and attitudes (amongst other things)

A task for psychology is to explain mental processes, that means to determine what goes on in people’s minds and how that leads them to certain reactions to their environment. To determine what sufficiency is on the individual level seen from a psychological perspective, we see the behavior on the one side. So the task is to identify behaviors that indicate a sufficiency orientation. This should be everyday consumption behavior that is a sign of direct resource-saving behavior, modest consumption and non-materialistic interests. But the attitudes that lead to such behavior are at least as important. Talking about a sufficiency orientation the motivation behind the behavioral decisions are crucial. Why so? If there is no satisfaction with not consuming, it’s probably not going to last but other opportunities will be taken (e.g. if more money is available) for consumption. It is easy to assume that people who cannot afford to buy a lot and to travel a lot will turn out to live on a ‘sufficiency level’ according to their resource use. The understanding of sufficiency as an orientation related to nonmaterialistic values implies a high quality of life though. Well-being and contentment shall not be impaired and sufficiency behavior shall not be forced by others, by circumstances or by oneself (against the actual will).

What my research is about

How does sufficiency relate to important psychological constructs such as happiness, quality of life, need satisfaction, norms and value changes? To tackle all the exciting and urging questions, there is a need for a proper understanding of what sufficiency is exactly. Or at least roughly. Therefore, I am trying to create a measure for sufficiency that includes relevant behaviors and attitudes. I designed a questionnaire that contains statements related to these behaviors and attitudes and participants were to indicate the extent to which they agreed on each statement.

Results showed that all the behaviors were well related to each other, so that the underlying dimension of ‘sufficiency’ can be assumed. A further investigation (by the statistical method of factor analysis) showed that there may be subgroups of behavior that are often answered very similarly, or, put differently, that there are several dimensions within sufficiency behavior. For example, one of these dimensions aggregated such behaviors that helped also saving money, such as saving energy and water, not travelling by plane, using all edibles instead of dumping them. Another dimension was characterized by sharing, swapping and reusing, thus more socially embedded behaviors like sharing goods with friends or in LETS (local exchange trading systems), sharing a (community) garden, participating in car sharing and buying second-hand on fleamarkets or in second-hand shops. All in all five dimensions could be found – however they are not independent of each other. In the end, all of them are related to sufficiency, so we are actually happy to find them related. For the attitudes, a similar pattern was found. However, attitudes can be less concrete than behavior. It was thus possible to extract five rather general attitude items (statements) that serve as a good indicator of general sufficiency attitudes and build a shorter scale (the initial attitude scale encompassed 29 items). In another study by Max and Maria (link to come) this short scale as well as the 26 items long behavior scale proved to be reliable and valid for assessing sufficiency in a different sample.

What next?

There is an ongoing discussion among environmental psychologists (and others) on what has to be included in a satisfactory definition of sufficiency from a psychology perspective. Is it necessary that people are happy? Is economic shortage an exclusion criterion – does someone have to be ‘rich to do without purposefully’? Is sufficiency in reality a basic motivation or a value and not a behavioral pattern? During the colloquium session, there was also the point of socially embedded behavior and change of social action that might not be displayed in individual behavior but still is an important factor of sufficiency. Here, an exciting interdisciplinary challenge becomes obvious when dealing with sufficiency research.

As far as I am concerned, I will address the question of sufficiency as a basic motivation that shows up in behaviors and attitudes alike. Besides the methodological part, I am now looking for opportunities to link that research to actual real-world scenarios and address further questions where a measure of sufficiency can be related to other constructs or applications. Ideas welcome! Hopefully, we will have another transition>>lab meeting for developing ideas for this.

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