People would rather be green than be greedy
This post was originally published by the Guardian (Sustainable Business section), 11.01.13
Over the past five years, a simple idea about the best way of promoting sustainable behaviour has taken root, and grown. The idea – once radical but now understood as fundamental to developing serious public engagement with climate change – is straightforward: that encouraging people to adopt sustainable behaviours because it will save them money is a flawed and potentially counter-productive strategy.
A paper published this month in Nature Climate Change by psychologist Jan Willem Bolderdijk of the University of Groningen and others, is the latest in a growing body of empirical evidence that challenges the idea that “save money, save the planet” is a viable message for promoting engagement with climate change.
In an experiment conducted at a petrol station in Holland, the researchers compared two different messages aimed at persuading people to get their tyre pressure checked (because cars with tyres inflated to the correct pressure use less petrol).
The researchers targeted either economic or “biospheric” (ie caring for the natural world) values in their messages, comparing the effectiveness of an environmental slogan, “care about the environment? Get a free tyre check”; a money saving slogan, “Care about your finances? Get a free tyre check”; and a control group message that asked people to think about their safety on the road.
Although the overall number of people that actually responded to the messages and checked their tyres was fairly low, the results were intriguing: not a single coupon for a tyre check was taken from the economic message, while the environmental slogan produced the highest number of takers (a statistically significant result).
In two other studies, they also found that people reported feeling more positive towards biospheric appeals, and that these types of messages made them feel better about themselves. People thought it was better to be green than it was to be greedy.
As the authors say: “Reliance on economic appeals matches the widespread misconception that people are primarily motivated by (economic) self-interest, and are not motivated to change unless some personal benefit is implicated. However, in doing so, an important, perhaps even more basic source of human motivation is overlooked: people are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept which can be achieved by acting in line with one’s internal moral standards.”
Given that everyone – even the most materialistic and extrinsically-focused among us – places some value on intrinsically oriented messages and issues, Bolderdijk’s study raises important questions for any campaign that starts from the assumption that people are inherently motivated by financial considerations (and financial considerations only).
The evidence is now becoming impossible to ignore. Based on converging theoretical and empirical evidence, we know that certain types of values cluster together, and are associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour (in particular, biospheric and altruistic values). People have a range of values. They are deep-rooted, and seeking to ‘change’ them is both pointless and potentially unethical.
But different messages and ways of presenting information activate and prime different types of values – and priming or activating bioshpheric and altruistic values (which we all possess to some extent) will increase the chances of pro-environmental behaviour occurring, in the long term but perhaps also in the short term too.
Sadly, despite much repetition by researchers and practitioners, this message does not seem to be sinking in at policy level.
The Green Deal, the government’s flagship strategy for engaging the public on climate and energy through an ambitious household insulation/energy saving scheme, is decidedly lacking in tested methods of public engagement. In its place is a straightforward economic argument: if you install energy-saving measures around your home, you will save (or at least not lose) money on cheaper energy bills.
The Green Deal could be so much more. What if, instead of a thinly veiled bribe, it was couched in the language and rhetoric of green citizenship? What if, instead of an economic message about saving money, household insulation was promoted to people on the basis that everyone – rich or poor – has the right to a warm and cosy home, but also a responsibility to use energy more sustainably? What if the Green Deal was the first step in a long-term strategy for embedding sustainability at the very heart of what it means to be a responsible, moral citizen?
This is the challenge that any organisation – private, public or third sector – that seeks to promote sustainable behaviour faces. Many people are much more comfortable making the economic case for sustainability than they are the moral one. But if it is morals, not money, that ultimately underlies our attitudes and behaviours, isn’t it time we listened to the evidence, and changed tack?
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