Considering Behavior Change in Conservation

Twenty-six years ago, Hungerford and Volk stated that “the ultimate aim of education is shaping human behavior.” Knowing full well that these words might inspire a revolt, I used them to open the first session of the Seattle Aquarium Journal Club. The Journal Club was my new project and I was eager to start our inaugural meeting with a rousing discussion of behavior change. Written over a quarter century ago, I asked, were these simple words still relevant?

As predicted, a lively discussion ensued. First, there was disagreement. The quote seemed reductionist - there was so much more to environmental education than just behavior change. There was curiosity, identity building, self-efficacy - all worthwhile goals to impart on our visitors and learners. And then there was the question of our mission, centered on the word “inspiration.” At the base of all this was the lingering question - if the ultimate aim was behavior change, how and when could we really say we had accomplished our goals? The question was troubling, but more troubling was the thought of ignoring countless other achievements and successes. Critics of environmental education, I noted, were quick to point at the continued presence of environmental challenges as evidence that our work was not effective.

The discussion soon evolved into a deeper one about our role as a community institution, particularly among the relatively progressive, well-educated populace of Seattle. We all agreed that we certainly acted as advocates in a variety of areas including sustainability, ocean health, and conservation. As such, we could be trusted role models for pro-environmental behaviors. The Aquarium could also be a good source for positive reinforcement, reminding the community where we have had successes and inviting them to participate in current efforts.

Throughout our talk, it seemed to me that the desire to encourage pro-environmental behavior pervaded the conversation. I was reminded of a high school English teacher I once had who used to stand at the front of the class and emphatically say, “to what effect?” as we dissected and digested lines of Shakespeare and Eliot. The outcomes that we so reverently pursue seem so deeply rooted in behavior. Inspiration - to what effect? Curiosity - to what effect?

I can also see, though, how singularly focusing on behavior change - that is, assuming that a lack of great change in behavior denoted some sort of failure - was discouraging. But perhaps worse, it seemed to disregard the complexity of behavior. Twenty-six years ago, we did not have the same understanding of behavior that we have today. And though we are still discovering new things about what compels us to act, we have made great advances in identifying some of the precursors, motivators, and barriers to pro-environmental behavior.

The world we imagine as environmental educators certainly looks different than the one we live in today. The ethic, priorities, and behaviors that we hope to instill require changing social norms and challenging beliefs and habits that might be deeply held. But while the end result might be a new or altered behavior, the steps that we take to get there are all equally valuable. Just as the Aquarium may be one part of an ecosystem of experiences, the blocks that we use to build behavior should be approached with similar recognition for the elaborate nature of human learning. The ultimate aim may still be to change behavior, but as we continue to learn, grow, and adapt our practice, we can recognize and celebrate the winding path it will take to get there and the outcomes we will achieve along the way.

Kathayoon Khalil, Ph.D. is the Principal Evaluator at the Seattle Aquarium. Kathayoon received her Ph.D. from Stanford University, studying social networks in environmental education. Kathayoon holds a B.A. from Claremont McKenna College and a Master of Environmental Science from Yale University. Kathayoon is passionate about the role of zoos and aquariums in wildlife conservation. Her favorite animals are elephants and hedgehogs.


As a new researcher and young professional in the field of Environmental Education, I have many questions. My research interests are in behavior change and I even worked on research during my undergraduate studies on the Determinants of Composting Behavior in College Students. I was inspired and educated by this blog post of yours. As you had mentioned, there is a lot more to Environmental Education then just behavior change, including self-efficacy, curiosity and identity building. I am wondering if there is any behavior change research that attempts to connect all of these things together to create a cohesive approach to pro-environmental behavior change? As you had mentioned, all of these goals play into the overall theme of Environmental Education, but has anyone worked to combine all of them together to make the biggest impact?