Understanding public views about the Sustainable Development Goals

People's beliefs about how the SDGs can help achieve sustainability are complex, but our research highlighted some common patterns across countries. Here we provide background to the motivations for this research and some of the challenges involved.
Published in Sustainability
Understanding public views about the Sustainable Development Goals

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Here we provide some background to our paper: “Public views about the Sustainable Development Goals across countries”: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-019-0365-4

When the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were announced I was impressed by their breadth – it seemed like a dedicated attempt to address a broad range of issues to make a better world. But why 17? Some of the distinctions seemed a little forced to me – such as between SDG5: Gender equality and SDG10: Reduced Inequalities – aren’t they both about equality?

In my work as a social psychologist I am interested in people’s beliefs about the world, and how knowing about these beliefs can improve communication. It’s an aphorism that communicators should “know their audience”, but it’s based on a truth – people do tend to remember and accept things consistent with their own beliefs. So this research combined my questions about the SDGs with my interest in people’s beliefs, with a longer-term view to develop ways to communicate sustainability more effectively.

There may be good policy reasons for this number of SDGs, but I wondered whether the public make such fine-grained distinctions. I wondered whether they might actually think about sustainability in simpler ways – and what those ways would look like. I found little quantitative work beyond the relative importance of the SDGs – this is useful but doesn’t really get to people’s beliefs about them. So we wanted to know what people believed each of the SDGs were for – how does each goal promote sustainability?

To do this, we asked people to rate the extent to which each goal was aimed at achieving environmental, economic, and social sustainability. These three elements form the widely used “three pillars” model of sustainability. But despite its prominence, we were surprised with the difficulty of finding clear definitions of the three pillars, and especially in distinguishing social and economic sustainability. So we developed short definitions ourselves, drawing from multiple sources, and sent them to sustainability scholars for feedback. That’s how we ended up with the definitions used in the paper, and thankfully the findings suggest that these distinctions were meaningful to people.

We took a descriptive approach – we’d let the data guide us on the complexity and content of people’s beliefs about sustainability. But the research question was complex - people could relate each SDG to sustainability in different ways, and some people could have more nuanced views than others. This is beyond the typical ways we analyse data in my field. Thankfully, I was able to work with Prof Pieter Kroonenberg from Leiden University, one of only a few world experts in analysing this type of complex data. Learning how to perform and interpret these analyses feels a bit like learning a martial art – it takes years of development before you feel barely competent. I’ve been working on-and-off with Pieter in analysing this type of data for many years now, and it’s helped a lot to work with a “sensei”.


Another challenge was translation, which goes beyond finding “dictionary equivalents” of English words in other languages. My co-authors played an important role in advising on both language and cultural issues. Russia was an interesting case – through my co-author Kate Bushina I learned that sustainability is not a common concept in Russian’s everyday life. There is a technical term (that the UN uses), but it isn’t really used in conversation. So we spent some time grappling with this and ensuring we provided definitions that made sense to people there. 

I was hoping the analyses would reveal a simple story – that there were one or two mental maps that everyone held. Finding four mental maps, each with a positive and negative pattern of associations (so eight maps in total), became a massive challenge to explain. I’m still not completely happy with how we explained them in the paper, but it got to the point in the revision process where I felt I was making it worse – that’s when I thought it was the right time to stop and submit. But as a Pieter often reminded me – when you ask complex questions you shouldn’t be surprised when you get complex answers.

My hope is that we were able to communicate this complexity in a way that can be understood – my fear is that we didn’t. So I’m looking forward to learning from people’s reactions and improving how we can communicate these and other complex findings in the future.

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Go to the profile of Mark McCaffrey
over 4 years ago

Thank you for giving us some background on this research on SDGs. Here in Hungary (where some of the original SDG authors originate) the word sustainability translates as “fenntarthatóság”... but who ever uses the term? To the village locals who grow most of their own food and have relatively small energy/food footprints it’s simply survival, not so different from what their ancestors have been doing to survive for generations.

And perhaps survivability is more to the point. Back in the late 1990s we balked at using the term sustainability in the Boulder Area Sustainability Information Network (BASIN) because the term had been hijacked by corporations. 

The point you are making is words do matter, but how they are used and interpreted vary widely.