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Self-interest and Pro-environmental Behaviour

Aug 15, 2012 by | 2 Comments

This guest post is by Dr. Laurel Evans, who led a study pub­lished this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study is one of the first direct tests of a ques­tion that has been at the center of debates about cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion: Should we talk about self-interest when pro­moting envir­on­mental behaviour?

We all have values, even if they aren’t always part of the public discussion.

Research has shown that we value sim­ilar things, like the envir­on­ment, our health, and per­sonal achieve­ment, although we pri­or­itize them in dif­ferent ways. It’s also clear that we are shaped by what we see in our daily lives; reminders of our values come to us in books and TV shows, posters and images, and the actions of those around us. Psychologists call this “priming”. It means bringing to mind, or reminding.

But, per­haps most inter­est­ingly, researchers have found that priming some values actu­ally decreases the pri­ority of “opposing” values. There are sev­eral sets of values that con­flict with each other in this way. For example, values of open­ness and explor­a­tion typ­ic­ally con­flict with values of tra­di­tion and security. Also, values of self-transcendence or caring about com­munal impacts (like the envir­on­ment) con­flict with values of self-interest and per­sonal achievement.

Greg Maio and his col­leagues found that priming bene­vol­ence values made par­ti­cipants in their exper­i­ment more helpful to the exper­i­menter later than a con­trol group, but decreased their per­form­ance on a word search task (i.e. a test of self-focused achieve­ment) com­pared to the con­trols. Those who were instead primed with achieve­ment values per­formed better than con­trol on the word search but were lower than con­trol in help­ful­ness. This is inter­esting because par­ti­cipants could have all been good at the word search and highly helpful, but instead their value focus determ­ined which one they were “good” at.

We wondered whether the mes­sages people receive about envir­on­mental beha­viours have a sim­ilar effect on people’s values and beha­viour. Many cam­paigns focus on the money sav­ings that could be achieved by various envir­on­mental activ­ities, such as installing effi­cient appli­ances and energy-saving light bulbs. We thought that this self-interested mes­saging might pro­mote the envir­on­mental beha­viour in the mes­sage, but fail to bol­ster overall envir­on­mental behaviour.

We tested this by giving out dif­ferent mes­sages about car-sharing (car­pooling in the US), in the form of a true-false ques­tion­naire. Some par­ti­cipants received ques­tions reminding them of the money-saving aspects of car-sharing, some received ques­tions reminding them of the pos­itive envir­on­mental impacts of car-sharing, and some received both sets of ques­tions. There was also a con­trol group who only answered gen­eric travel questions.

We then wanted to test everyone’s envir­on­mental beha­viour in a domain other than car-sharing – to see if the effects of the mes­sage would “spill over” or not. So we included, among other tasks, the instruc­tion to dis­pose of one of the sheets of paper, with a gen­eral waste bin nearby and a recycle bin fur­ther away.

We found that par­ti­cipants who read the envir­on­mental ques­tions were sig­ni­fic­antly more likely to recycle the paper than the con­trol group, but those who read fin­an­cial ques­tions, or both envir­on­mental and fin­an­cial ques­tions, were not. When doing a stat­ist­ical com­par­ison, the envir­on­mental priming was sig­ni­fic­antly better at causing recyc­ling than the fin­an­cial priming. The case was less clear for the com­bined priming, but it was overall less effective than envir­on­mental priming.

What does this mean for envir­on­mental cam­paigners? Well, it might mean that they should recon­sider the types of mes­sages they use. Reminding people of their envir­on­mental values clearly has bene­fits beyond the single tar­geted beha­viour, but there is a danger that reminding people of their self-interested values will fail to cause such spillover.

Further, psy­cho­lo­gists have found a great deal of evid­ence for self-perception theory, which says that we mon­itor our own actions and reasons for acting, and use these to build our iden­tities. Acting for mon­etary reasons, instead of helpful reasons, is more likely to lead to requiring mon­etary reasons to act in the future.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as chan­ging entirely to envir­on­mental mes­sages. Some people pri­or­itize money sav­ings, plain and simple, and they may need a mes­sage that res­on­ates with their core values. More research is needed on whether this might be the case, what their reac­tion might be to an envir­on­mental mes­sage, and whether the net bene­fits to the envir­on­ment are greater with one type of mes­sage or another.

However, one thing is cer­tain: The mes­sages we send about our values act as beacons, reminders to others around us. We bol­ster each other. Psychologist Niki Harré spoke to me recently about leaving a “beha­viour trail” for others to follow. It may mean car­rying your bike helmet with you, talking proudly about your energy-efficient dish­washer, or using social media. But whatever you do, your values and actions are likely to leave an imprint on others.

In my view, this means that all of our per­sonal actions are mean­ingful, even in the case of large-scale prob­lems like cli­mate change. Contrary to what some say, it is not only gov­ern­ment policies that will make a dif­fer­ence. Living and acting on envir­on­mental values, and acting as examples to others, may well help to turn the tide of public opinion, poten­tially win­ning sup­port for those all-important cli­mate policies even as we shave down our own per­sonal emissions.

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • per­haps one of the prob­lems here, is that so many of those cham­pi­oning urgent cli­mate action, have per­sonal wealth, life­styles and ‘carbon foot­prints’ hun­dreds of times higher than the public that they preach too..

    the 1400 limos and the array of private jets at Copenhagen as an early example..

  • How about we simply let people make decisions for them­selves and not not use the manip­u­la­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tions or inform­a­tion as a method con­trolling or dir­ecting behaviour.

    Just a thought.

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