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The psychology of turning people ‘green’: Link environmentally sustainable behaviors to personal goals

Study participants who read about how environmental behaviors could help them in their personal lives were more likely to say they’d be willing to make such changes.

The study's authors: “It suggests that motivation to perform environmentally sustainable behaviors can be increased by letting people connect these behaviors to higher-order goals of their own personal choice.”
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Most Americans now accept the scientific reality of global warming, including that it’s caused primarily by humans pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But what they have more difficulty accepting is that they need to alter their daily behaviors — such as switching to public transit, reducing home energy waste and recyling — to help mitigate that warming.

One widely used approach to triggering such changes in behavior has been to educate people about the dangers of global warming and then try to persuade them to help save the environment, both locally and globally, by acting in more environmentally sustainable ways. But, as the authors of a recent study point out, “not everybody is susceptible to techniques focused on environmental goals. It is human nature to devalue, disregard, or even act adversely to information that is not in line with one’s own attitudes and goals.”

A better approach, those researchers suggest, might be to connect environmentally sustainable behaviors to goals that are important to individuals — “even if such goals are unrelated to climate change or the environment in general.”

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And that is what their study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found: People are more willing to adopt “green” behaviors when those behaviors are linked to their personal goals.

This finding is intriguing and, perhaps, important, for it provides “initial support for a new way to increase sustainable energy behaviors and commuting behaviors that eliminates the need for people to hold pro-environmental goals or attitudes,” write the study’s authors, psychologists Kerrie Unsworth of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and Ilona McNeill of the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“It suggests that motivation to perform environmentally sustainable behaviors can be increased by letting people connect these behaviors to higher-order goals of their own personal choice,” they add.

A three-part study

The study comprised three separate experiments. One involved 183 working adults in the United States and the United Kingdom who drove to work daily in their own cars. The researchers presented the participants with the following scenario: 

Imagine your company has decided to remove the majority of its car parking spaces to build another building for offices. To ensure you’ll still be able to get to work, they will heavily subsidize your costs on public transport.

The participants were then randomly divided into two groups. One was given an environmental justification for the company’s public transport subsidy, including specifics on how much it would reduce carbon emissions. The other group was provided that same information, but was also told how the change could help them reach personal goals, such as saving money, becoming more physically fit and having more time to read (while on the bus or train).

After reading the justifications, the participants were asked how they would commute to work after the parking lot was closed. Those who had been told how the change might help them with their personal goals were more likely to say they would take up the company on its mass-transit subsidy offer than those who were given only the environmental justification.

In addition, the more links the participants found with their personal goals, the more enthusiastic they were about making the change.

Encouraging other behaviors

The second experiment was similar to the first, except that it involved additional environmental behaviors, such as reducing energy use and recycling. For this experiment, the researchers recruited 507 Australian adults from a variety of political and educational backgrounds.

Once again, the participants were randomly assigned to two groups. Both groups were told the environmental benefits of sustainable behaviors, but one was also shown how the behaviors could help with other goals, some personal (such as saving money and improving health) and some societal (such as fewer traffic accidents and less exploitation of people in developing countries).

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As in the other experiment, participants who read about how environmental behaviors could help them in their personal lives were more likely to say they’d be willing to make such changes. 

Influencing action

In the third experiment, which involved surveys of 305 Australian adults, Unsworth and McNeill found that when people believed an environmentally sustainable behavior also supported their personal goals, they were more likely to sign a petition supporting governmental efforts on that issue.

That finding held even after the researchers controlled for political views and whether or not the participants considered themselves environmentalists.

Limitations and implications

This study, like all studies, comes with several important caveats. Most notably, the study asked people only if they were willing to make behavioral changes. It didn’t follow people to see if such changes actually occurred.

Also, as the authors admit, the attitude changes observed in the experiments were “small to medium” in size.

Still, the findings suggest, if only tentatively, a “nonenvironmental pathway through which we can increase environmentally sustainable behaviors,” write Unsworth and McNeill.

“We are definitely not suggesting that we should give up on environmental values altogether,” they explain. “However we do believe that our self-concordance based approach can provide an effective alternative to increase environmentally sustainable behaviors and might be an especially useful approach to increase such behaviors among those who otherwise would not consider it at all.”

“Addressing and adapting to climate change requires that everyone engage in sustainable behaviors in both the home and the workplace,” they add. “We have shown that linking these behaviors to a person’s goals, regardless of whether or not they are environmental goals, will go some way to meeting this challenge.”

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on Journal of Applied Psychology’s website, but, unfortunately, the full study is behind a paywall.