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Why Organizational Psychology Should Be a Leading Force for Sustainability

Robert G. Jones

Most readers here know, but which may be news to those interested in evolutionary psychology: One of the few self-evident characteristics of humanity is the tremendous variety and diversity of organizations we have created, particularly during the past couple of centuries. Our social structures are the most essential artifice we have created to solve the problem of adaptation. They represent a revolution in evolution. This variety of organizational artifice can be found in no other species and is required for realizing the ideas underlying everything from roofs (getting someone else to hold up the poles while I put on the thatch) to quantum computing.

Like almost every other modern enterprise of note, climate science has relied on scientific communities, organized loosely around universities, journal publishers, and peer reviewers. Identifying the great existential problem of our time—global climate instability—has relied entirely on the realization of hypotheses generated through this process. What many concerned scientists are coming to realize is that we will need to rely on these same sorts of scientific communities if we hope to rapidly contain global climate change and various other looming environmental dangers. The same scientific diligence needs to be applied to our organizing behaviors that we have applied to identifying these environmental problems in the first place.

I-O psychology and the related organizational sciences that rely on psychological research are the disciplines best able to manage social formation processes for a sustainable future. For a start, I-O and quantitative psychologists have played important roles in creating the consumer economy (Jones, 2020, p. 212, 290); this, though originally helpful in the effort to revive the economy during the Great Depression, has more recently come back to bite us with massive amounts of waste, carbon gas, and other environmentally damaging byproducts. Can we apply the same successful methods to clean up some of the problems that we helped create? The question is how organizational science (especially I-O) will accomplish Rachel Carson’s central aspiration in Silent Spring (1962): To “manage ourselves.”

The Mental Map Hack

Understanding and managing our species’ revolutionary survival strategy is at the heart of managing ourselves. This gets to the question of human exceptionalism, which has been central to ethical discussions of environmental action (Jones, 2022) and essential for working toward a more sustainable future for all planetmates. There have been numerous popular claims about what makes humans exceptional, including the neocortex (Harari, 2014), opposable thumb (Morris, 1967), complex language (Jackendoff & Wittenberg, 2017) and social traditions (Wilson, 2012). These “single factor” explanations sound suspiciously like the basic assumptions about human nature used in economic models before the relatively recent advent of behavioral economics. Single factor explanations grossly oversimplify a very complex set of factors.

In fact, it is a combination of multiple factors that make humans exceptional. The evolution of flight provides a useful analogy to demonstrate how multiple factors underlie a revolutionary adaptive strategy (see Bennet & Glen, 2007). Flight occurred as a result of physical characteristics (light weight, membranes, feathers, perceptual abilities for navigation), learned behaviors (leaping to get away from predators or catch prey, flapping wings, echolocation, extending feet to land safely), and circumstances (living in trees and on cliffs, calm or weak winds, level landing places, predators that required escape, and prey unprepared to defend aerial assault). These three determine adaptation in all species, through selection of DNA (physical characteristics), RNA (and related mechanisms of learning and developmental change), and the demands of a surrounding environment.

Our creation of a huge variety of social structures is similar. It is a consequence of physical characteristics, which, while they are fairly unusual, do exist in various forms in other species. But it is the unique combination of the capacities afforded by the neocortex, vocal structures, and facial features that give us abilities to form mental models, make a large variety of sounds, and express our motives to others, respectively. Our adaptation is also a consequence of circumstances that made us individually vulnerable, including relatively slow movement, receding forests in our original African habitats, and lack of food and water resources in many of the habitats to which we migrated in an effort to escape these circumstances (Morris, 1967). As this last circumstance suggests, like birds and bats, we jumped off a metaphorical cliff by migrating to some places for which our species was not well equipped to adapt via anatomy and physiology.

So, although single physical structures like the neocortex, speech mechanisms, and social learning capacities were put to work on adaptive puzzles, it was through the consequent creation of a huge variety of social organizations that we managed to succeed to the extent we have done so far—through the social species evolving from the many interactions among different people, groups, and cultures.

Designed social structures are therefore our primary evolutionary strategy (Jones, 2022). Take for example the building of a roof. Under some circumstances, allowing rain to fall on one’s head may pose little impediment to foraging, hunting, herding, mating, fending off predators, raising offspring, and other survival activities. But, under other circumstances (e.g., when the cold from rain is likely to dangerously lower body temperature), rain can reduce productive activities of humans and our domesticates. If we think of cold rain as one of many environmental forces that can instigate selection (i.e., kill certain members of the species so that they are less likely to reproduce), then artifice (like a roof) and the social artifice required to coordinate the creation of a roof can be thought of as a way to moderate the selection pressures imposed by environmental forces. Given humans’ prodigious creation of physical artifice to deal with weather (e.g., roofs, walls, heating and cooling systems, weather warning systems, etc.), it is not surprising that, unlike any other species, humans have permanent settlements in all sorts of environmental conditions—from ice shelves to deserts. We are somewhat exempt from the usual forces of natural selection (DNA and RNA changes).

And humans have moderated many environmental effects— “flattened the curves” of factors that affect our survival in many ways—not just the weather. Recent experiences with the COVID pandemic and the vaccines that control its spread are one example of how social organization “hacks” the usual effects of DNA on natural selection. Vaccines have been made possible by very complex social structures around several sciences (epidemiology, microbiology, immunology) and practices (medical practice, public health, and public communication, to name a few). Figure 1 demonstrates how these social structures surrounding vaccination reduce the effects of viral infection on mortality—and the DNA-related selection following from it. Without vaccination, selection is largely based on physical characteristics, most of which are determined by DNA. With vaccination, it is based on the complex social structures that are our primary adaptive strategy.

Figure 1.

Distributions of Mortality Rates in Populations With and Without Vaccination


What Humans Do Is Different

Although there is also great diversity in the types of social organizing across and between species, the diversity of organizing structures within the single species homo sapiens rivals all the structures found in all these other “organizing” species combined. This variety of human organizing includes not just the sort of inborn, habitual structures found in collective species (e.g., bees, ungulates, snow geese) or the learned social structures that follow from ecological dynamics (e.g., dominance hierarchies in pronghorn, porpoises, and large apes). Although these inborn social structures can play roles in our behaviors, we also form social structures the same way that we create physical structures. We form mental models, then use language and social demonstration to share these mental models (see Klimoski & Mohammed, 1994). These shared mental models allow multiple individuals to contribute and engage in social and physical organizing. Along with the rote learning, social imitation, herding, and other processes underlying animal social structures, we have used cognitive maps not only to think up physical artifices (roofs, walls, heating, computers, etc.) but to organize our social behavior in novel ways to create these physical artifices.

This specific adaptive capacity, born of multiple physical, learned, and circumstantial factors isn’t just different from other species. Our difference is truly exceptional. Ours is a new, almost unique approach to the evolutionary problem. The activities required for creating physical artifice rely on a type of social coordination that is rarely or never seen even in other social species. While a single individual may have conceived of the idea of “roof”—perhaps after getting kicked out of the family cave—it takes the coordinated efforts of multiple people to build even a rudimentary structural roof of any size. Someone needs to hold up the poles, someone else to pull the covering over the top, and so one. Even if an individual, Castaway style, may be able to pull this off with enough time and determination—and fair circumstances—having conceived a coordinating scheme and found some way to convince others to help implement and refine it can make this relatively simple task easier, quicker, and sometimes more effective. Never mind the social coordination required to construct roofs on sports stadiums.

Applying the Psychology of Social Organization to Sustainability

Already convinced that humans have done enough damage to the planetary systems on which we rely, I argue that we should apply the scientific social organizations that manage social organizing in order to manage ourselves. Physical sciences have brought to light these damages, but we need to rely on applied social sciences for managing the social organizing process that has led us to this pass. At the time Carson (1962) made her call, applied psychology had already taken root as a way to improve individual quality of life. Clinical and counseling psychology had taken aim at mental health. I-O psychology was developing means for improving workplace safety, performance, and satisfaction. Most notably, from today’s environmental perspective, consumer psychology has been successfully applied to stimulating the purchase of goods and services.  

Describing and managing the psychological processes through which, and circumstances under which, we devise and test “new” social structures is arguably the most important means through which we can solve our biggest problem of survival: maintaining a sustainable environment. So far, we have paid almost no attention to managing the development of various organizational capacities for directing our planet toward such a successful, sustainable future.

It is time for I-O psychology to get to work on this. We know a good bit already about how organizations function effectively (or not), how to set up and monitor the systems that provide the sorts of people that will achieve many kinds of missions, and how the design of these systems affects the groups that are formed and thrive (or fail) within them. There is no other discipline with access to such a range of tried and tested methods and measures for this purpose. We also have existing tools and a broad knowledge base (along with other organizational sciences) to learn how social speciation happens and how to direct and otherwise manage the development of new organizational species. The research opportunities here are copious and potentially world changing. Finding ways to apply I-O to this enterprise are just beginning to take hold (Klein & Huffman, 2013; Ones & Dilchert, 2013). This is an opportunity for our social species to take a leading role. Defining specific criteria, finding and defining jobs and motivational systems, and generally supporting organizational decision making toward effective, sustainable practices are what we do best.


Bennet, M. B., & Glen, C. L. (2007). Foraging modes of Mesozoic birds and non-avian theropods. Current Biology17(21), 911–912.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin.

Harari, N. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Harvill Secker.

Jackendoff, R., & Wittenberg, E. (2017). Linear grammar as a possible stepping-stone in the evolution of language. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review24(1), 219–224. 

Jones, R. G. (2020). Applied psychology of sustainability. Taylor and Francis/Routledge.

Jones, R. G. (2022). Sustainable solutions: The climate crisis and the psychology of social action. American Psychological Association.

Klein, S. R., & Huffman, A. H. (2013). I-O psychology and environmental sustainability in organizations: A natural partnership. In S. R. Klein & A. H. Huffman (Eds.), Green organizations: Driving change with I-O psychology (pp. 3–16). Routledge.

Klimoski, R., & Mohammed, S. (1994). Team mental model: Construct or metaphor? Journal of Management, 20(2), 403–437.

Morris, D. (1967). The naked ape: A zoologist’s study of the human animal. Jonathan Cape Publishing.

Ones, D. S., & Dilchert, S. (2013). Measuring, understanding, and influencing employee green behavior. In A. H. Huffman and S. R. Klein (Eds.), Green organizations: Driving change with I-O psychology (pp. 115–148). Routledge.

Our World in Data. (2022). United States: COVID-19 weekly death rate by vaccination status, 50+. Global Change Data Lab. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/united-states-rates-of-covid-19-deaths-by-vaccination-status?country=~50%2B

Wilson, E.O. (2012). The social conquest of earth. Liveright.          

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