Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Attitude Change to Sustainable Development

  • Qudsia KalsoomEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_160-1



Attitude change towards sustainable development (SD) may be defined as a change in one’s feelings towards the issues related to environment, society, or economy. It is about developing a concern and feeling for the planet earth and life on it (humans and other living creatures). In other words, a change in attitude towards SD refers to feeling bad for environmental destruction, climate change, oppression, and socioeconomic injustice. It also involves a strong feeling of undertaking pro-sustainability actions at individual or collective levels.


Attitudes towards sustainable development (SD) may be described as enduring feelings towards the issues related to environment, society, or economy. SD or sustainability refers to two ideals, i.e., sustaining and developing. Nature (earth, biodiversity, ecosystems), life support (environment, resources), and community (culture, groups, places) have to be sustained while people and economy need to be developed (Leiserowitz et al. 2006) through education, fair governance, equitable and equal opportunities, and fair economic policies at global and national levels. Both targets of SD, i.e., sustaining and developing, require change in people’s values, attitudes, and behaviors. Sustainability is a value like freedom or democracy. Like other values, sustainability is an abstract ideal which is expressed through attitudes in the form of positive or negative feelings. Attitude to sustainable development reflects the extent to which people value sustainability, i.e., environment, economy, and society. Attitude change towards SD may be described as developing a concern and feeling responsible for three elements of sustainability. Attitude change to SD is important because of two major reasons: (1) it can positively influence people’s behavior towards economy, society, and environment; (2) it can change people’s relationship with the world around. Though attitudinal change is pivotal in transition towards SD, it is difficult to achieve because of the complexity of the construct of “attitude.” Before discussing attitude change to sustainable development, it is important to understand the concept of “attitude,” how is attitude developed, and the relationship between attitude and behavior.

Attitude and Attitude Development

Attitude is a psychological construct and has been defined differently by different theorists. Tabacbnick and Zeichner (1984) perceive attitudes as opinions with dispositions to act. Eagly and Chaiken (1993) view attitude as a psychological tendency to favor or disfavor something. It is also considered as a general and enduring positive or negative feeling about some person, issue, or object (Petty and Cacioppo 1981). An attitude object is something that is evaluated along a dimension of favorability. Attitude objects can be abstract (feminism) or concrete (a vehicle). It is also important to note that attitudes differ in valence and strength. Valence means categories of feelings like positive, neutral, and negative, while strength means “intensity of feelings.” We may have positive attitude for the idea of sustainability; however, the intensity of the attitude could be different.

Attitudes are closely linked to values and beliefs. In fact, beliefs, attitudes, and values collectively constitute individuals’ belief system. Beliefs are mental constructions (cognitive frames) taken as true, while attitudes are more about feelings. However, when different clusters of beliefs are organized around a person, object, or situation and predisposed to action, this holistic organization becomes an attitude (Pajares 1992). In this sense, attitudes are informed by one’s set of beliefs. As beliefs are cognitive constructions, therefore it can be assumed that attitudes also have cognitive character along with affective dimension. Like beliefs, values are closely related to attitudes. Often, attitudes derive from and reflect abstract values (Leiserowitz et al. 2006).

Attitudes are not directly observable. They may be inferred from what people say, intend, or do. However, the scope of a measured or inferred attitude from the behavior is broader than the measure of a behavior. For example, the attitude inferred from the behavior of “using public transport” may be “environmental care.” The inferred attitude is much broader than the observed behavior. Although the link between attitudes and behaviors is not always clear (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002), behaviors are frequently used as a measure to determine people’s attitude. The other ways of measuring attitudes are self-reported questionnaires.

People develop their attitudes towards something (object, person, or issue) as a result of their prior experiences. For example, if a person experiences that women are generally more helpful at workplace, then they may have positive attitude towards a stranger female. Similarly, people who experienced poverty may feel bad about the phenomenon, while others might have a neutral attitude towards poverty. It is also generally assumed that knowledge or information about something shapes one’s attitude. However, studies from environmental psychology have shown no or weaker relationship between knowledge and attitude towards environment (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002). People might have knowledge about the impact of pollution on human health and biodiversity, but they might not feel bad about people’s choices which cause pollution.

Social psychology suggests that people transform their attitudes under different influences. Kelman (1958) in his classic study on the processes of attitudinal change mentions that compliance, identification, and internalization lead to attitudinal change. Attitudinal or behavioral change resulting from compliance means a person might accept social influence with a hope to achieve a favorable reaction from another person or group. Attitudinal change occurring through compliance is not rooted in one’s values. People might change their attitude and behavior to establish or maintain satisfying, self-defining relationship to another person or group. This attitudinal change is also not rooted in one’s values. Unlike compliance and identification, attitudinal change occurring through internalization is fully in-line with one’s values. Attitudinal change occurring as a result of internalization is intrinsically rewarding.

Relationship between Attitude and Behavior

Studies from the field of environmental psychology show that people who have positive environmental attitude are more likely to engage in low-cost pro-environmental behaviors (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002). A recent study of environmental behavior in cross-national perspective has shown that level of development of a country determines the relationship between attitudes and behavior towards environment. The study found a correlation between environmental behavior and attitude of the people who belonged to more developed countries (Pisano and Lubell 2017). Milfont and Sibley (2012) found that attitudes of openness and agreeableness were strongly associated to environmental engagement at personal level and at nation level.

It has also been found that positive attitudes do not always translate into behavior. For example, people with positive attitude towards environment might choose to use water carefully. However, they may not limit their air travel. Similarly, people who are concerned about gender equality may arrange same education and health facilities for their children (girls and boys). However, they may choose not to work under the leadership of a woman.

Attitude Change to Sustainable Development

There is a consensus in literature that SD cannot happen without a change in people’s and nation’s attitudes towards sustainability. Attitudes are predictors of people’s behaviors and their relationship with the world around. Before discussing the expected change in attitudes towards sustainability, the need of attitudinal change and existing attitudes towards sustainability have been discussed in the next sections.

Need for Attitudinal Change to SD

Sustainability issues like climate change, depletion of natural resources, gender inequality, widening the gap between rich and poor nations, war, and discrimination cannot be addressed by informing people about the costs of economic development or telling them about the need of environmental protection, equality, justice, and peace. These issues require a complete shift in thinking and feelings towards the mentioned issues. Moreover, attitudinal change is a prerequisite for large-scale initiatives towards sustainability. Attitudes determine one’s relationship with other people and the Nature. People with positive feelings/attitude towards equality (attitude object) would appreciate the ideas and actions based on equity to help achieve equality in the society. This attitude indicates a relationship with and concern for the fellow beings. On the other hand, people having negative feelings towards “equality” would resist all those ideas and initiatives which are rooted in equity. People with neutral feeling would remain indifferent. This attitude indicates no concern for the fellow beings. It is expected that people who have positive attitude towards SD will be more receptive to sustainability initiatives.

Global Attitudes Towards SD

There is scarcity of literature reporting attitudes of general public as well as of university students towards sustainability. The most studied dimension of sustainability in terms of attitudes is environment. Global survey of environmental attitudes indicates that people from the advanced economies like the USA, Canada, Japan, Sweden, and Germany have least pro-environmental attitudes, whereas the people from developing economies are more concerned about climate change. They also feel responsible for overall environmental issues and look committed to change their lifestyles (National Geographic 2014). “Green at Fifteen,” the study of OECD-PISA (2009), indicated that across OECD countries, a substantial proportion of students report a very high sense of personal and social responsibility towards environmental issues. However, most of them were not optimistic about the improvements of environmental situation. It is also important to note that students from many high-income countries like Australia, Sweden, and Norway had lower sense of responsibility towards environment when compared with average. A study of Pakistani university students’ attitudes towards sustainability indicated a need for transforming students’ attitudes towards sustainability (Kalsoom et al. 2017).

Scales Measuring Attitudes Towards Sustainable Development

There is scarcity of scales measuring attitudes towards sustainable development. Michalos et al. (2012, 2015) developed a scale to measure 10th grade students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors towards sustainable development. Kalsoom et al. (2017) modified and used the scale of Michalos et al. (2012) to measure attitudes of preservice teachers’ and other university students towards sustainability. Biasutti and Frate (2017) developed and validated a quantitative 20-item scale that measures Italian university students’ attitudes towards sustainable development. Torbjörnsson et al. (2011) developed a scale to measure upper secondary students’ attitudes towards three values of sustainability: respect for nature, solidarity, and equality. Although researchers have developed and used different scales to measure attitudes towards SD, there is no agreed scale which has been used in cross-national, large-scale surveys to measure attitudes towards SD.

Expected Attitude Change to Sustainable Development

SD does not have an agreed definition so do attitudes for SD. However, researchers have built attitude measuring scales on the basis of sub-themes of SD identified by UNESCO. According to this, attitude change to sustainable development refers to change towards all aspects of sustainability. UNESCO (2006) has identified different sub-themes under three dimensions of sustainability:
  • Sub-themes under the environmental dimension.

  • Natural resources (water, energy, agriculture, and biodiversity), (2) rural development, (3) disaster prevention and mitigation, (4) sustainable urbanization, and (5) climate change.

  • Sub-themes under the economic dimension.

  • Corporate responsibility and accountability, (2) poverty reduction, and (3) market economy.

  • Sub-themes of the social dimension.

  • Human rights, (2) health, (3) gender equality, (4) peace and human security, (5) cultural diversity and intercultural understanding, (6) HIV/AIDS, and (7) governance.

Attitudes related to the abovementioned sub-themes may be labelled as attitudes towards sustainable development, whereas attitude change refers to developing positive feelings for socioeconomic and environmental justice and negative feelings for all kinds of injustice. Some examples related to expected attitude change for SD are as follows:
  • Believing unequal opportunities for females and males to education and employment.

  • Discouraging discrimination on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, color, gender, etc.

  • Valuing sustainable lifestyles.

  • Being concerned for the future generations.

  • Appreciating legislative initiatives regarding fuel efficiency.

  • Agreeing with the practice of equal sharing of household tasks among household members regardless of gender.

  • Valuing democratic processes and practices.

  • Disliking the use of disposables.

  • Valuing water conservation.

  • Believing that individual actions have a role in climate change.

  • Feeling concerned about extravagant use of resources.

  • Feeling concerned about the exploitation of the poorer by the wealthier.

  • Disliking unequal distribution of wealth among people and nations.

  • Believing that the people who pollute our land, air, or water should pay for the damage done to communities and the environment.

  • Feeling bad about war and killings.

  • Being concerned about unequal access to health facilities.

  • Believing that environmental protection and people’s quality of life are directly linked.

  • Agreeing that government economic policies should increase sustainable production.

  • Appreciating the need of sacrifices by the wealthier to reduce economic differences between populations.

  • Believing in social responsibility in poverty reduction.

  • Believing in fair trade.

  • Being concerned about governance structure which deprives the poor.

  • Feeling concerned about the people with serious health problems.

  • Appreciating rural development programs.

  • Believing that disasters can be reduced by protecting the environment.

  • Being concerned about the human activities which are harming the environment.

Role of Education in Attitude Change to SD

Current education (school education and higher education) is not helping the students to develop pro-sustainability attitudes. In fact, the problems of unsustainability are the result of education (Orr 1994). With the increasing volume of education, pollution has increased. Similarly, more education is leading to more exhaustion of resources and the dangers of ecological catastrophe (Schumacher 1997). Similarly, more education is causing economic disparities all over the world. To address the problems of sustainability, a “different kind of education” (Schumacher 1997) is needed. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) seems to be in line with Schumacher’s concept of different kinds of education. The focus of ESD is on transforming students’ thinking, attitudes, and practices towards economy, society, and the environment. The underlying assumption of ESD is that mere knowledge of SD is not enough to bring SD. It requires a deeper change, a change in thinking, attitudes, and behaviors.

Strategies to Attitude Change

Attitude change is more than cognitive learning. Awareness of an issue does not necessarily develop a feeling towards the issue. Attitude has cognitive and affective dimensions. Change in attitude towards SD is influenced by different factors like knowledge of sustainability issues, implications of unsustainability, people’s training, and the context (Leal Filho 2010).

Literature shows that real-world pedagogies like problem-based learning, project-based learning, undergraduate research, service learning, internships, and action research can be useful in transforming university students’ attitudes towards SD (Adomßent et al. 2014; Brundiers et al. 2010; Kalsoom and Khanam 2017; Lasen et al. 2015; Pretorius et al. 2016; Wiek et al. 2014). Problems of sustainability are real-world problems. The aforementioned pedagogies allow the participants to work in real situations and engage with sustainability problems.

Actual engagement with the sustainability problems helps the participants understand the problems and develop a feeling. A person who has never interacted with people living in poverty would not be able to develop a feeling of empathy towards them. Similarly, people who have not experienced forced displacement or migration can neither understand the issue of forced displacement nor feel the misery of the victims. They can feel for the victims if they interact with them and provide some kind of services. Real-world pedagogies provide opportunities to the people to understand the real-world issues and develop an attitude to address them at individual or collective levels.

Critical dialogues on the future consequences of unsustainable development and injustice can also make people more concerned about the problems of sustainability. Similarly, media can educate people about the need of sustainable development with a possibility to change their attitudes too.

Barriers to Attitudinal Change Regarding SD

Attitudinal change towards SD is different from attitudinal change towards people or concrete objects like consumer brands. Sustainable development is an abstract entity. One cannot change attitude towards SD without fully internalizing the concept of SD. The idea of sustainable development is structured around justice and equality. Therefore, attitude change to SD means changing one’s mind-set in favor of justice and equality. However, this kind of change is extremely difficult because dominant groups want to maintain their privileged positions in their societies. They can even take extreme steps like violence to maintain their power. Similarly, more powerful nations also establish inequitable economic and trade policies to keep large share of global wealth. There are two problems associated with the powerful groups: first, they act as predators and take huge share of economy; second, they act as role models for the disadvantaged groups. First step in attitudinal change of the powerful groups towards SD is a realization that their privileged social position is not because of their fate or their ancestors’ hard work rather because of unequal access to economic and natural resources. Similarly, attitudinal change of disadvantaged groups towards SD involves an awareness of the societal oppression and that powerful group is not a role model.


Attitudinal change towards sustainability is pivotal to promote pro-sustainability actions at individual and collective levels. The world has agreed on sustainable development goals. These goals are the outcome of a positive attitude towards sustainable development. Their enactment also requires positive attitude of the implementers and the public. Though transformation in attitudes is difficult, it can be achieved through sustainability education. Universities are the key sites for sustainability education. They need to provide opportunities to the students to engage in tasks which can lead a transformation in their attitudes and behaviors. Universities should try to address psychological barriers involved in transformation of attitudes. Similarly, schools should also take a proactive role in helping students’ learn pro-sustainability attitudes.

Cross References

  • Behaviour Change for Sustainable Development

  • Deep Learning on Sustainable Development

  • Norms and Values for Sustainable Development

  • Sustainable Development

  • Sustainable Values, Attitudes and Behaviour

  • Transformative Learning for Sustainability

  • Values Education for Sustainable Development


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationBeaconhouse National UniversityLahorePakistan

Section editors and affiliations

  • Evangelos Manolas
    • 1
  1. 1.Democritus University of ThraceThraceGreece