Blog post

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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