Another study finds "green" behavior complicated

Another study finds "green" behavior complicated

By Editorial Staff, Resource Recycling

You've probably heard that getting consumers to engage in environmentally-friendly behavior involves appealing to their self interests. But a new study suggests leaving out the tree-hugging part of a messaging strategy may backfire.

Published in Nature Climate Change, the study found that campaigns encouraging pro-environmental behavior such as recycling have increasingly appealed to the self-interest of the targeted audience in hopes of getting them to engage with the "self-transcendent" cause of protecting the natural world. However, the study suggests that giving self-interested reasons for carrying out actions aimed at broader concerns, such as caring for the environment, could have the opposite effect.

To support their claim, researchers conducted two experiments that "primed" different motives for car-sharing. In the first experiment, participants were randomly assigned to three groups: one that received information on the environmental benefits of car-sharing, one that received information on the financial benefits of car-sharing and a control group that received neutral information.

At the end of the experiment, participants were asked to discard a piece of paper that they had used to fill out a questionnaire. A significantly-greater percentage, 89 percent, of participants that were presented with information on the environmental benefits of car-sharing recycled the paper than the 45 percent of those in the control group. Only half of those in the group presented with information on the financial benefits of car-sharing recycled.

"Moreover, such inhibition of pro-environmental behavior might arise even when self-transcending motives are implicit in the behavior," reads the report. "For instance, people know that car-sharing is a sociable activity that benefits the broader community; the addition of a self-interested reason to car-share (for example, save money) may interfere with the broader operation of the self-transcending motive. Campaigners' intuition seems to be that the motives add together in a manner that is more compelling, or that they can be made salient simultaneously to reach different audiences."

The study also notes that during the experiment, participants were given the opportunity to choose scrap paper over new paper, and were also tested to see if they would choose a better energy-savings mode over a better-performance mode in a computer program. The researchers found that the participants' behaviors regarding these pro-environmental activities were not significantly affected by the information presented to them.

"It is quite possible that the choices offered were simply not salient as pro-environmental actions, and/or that competing motives prevented clear effects (for example, conscientiousness may have compelled the use of new, clean paper and elicited a reluctance to tamper with the lab computer settings)," reads the study. "Our measure of recycling was not vulnerable to these issues, enabling clear replication of effects on this measure across the studies."

Although the study notes that its findings don't mean that appealing to self-interested values will have no effect whatsoever, it does conclude that it has important lessons for campaigners.

"The results make it clear that a focus on the self-transcendent rationale for engaging in pro-environmental behavior is likely to offer a promising method of increasing positive spillover — a finding that should be very useful for campaigners," reads the study. "At the same time, they highlight a risk that campaigns will fail to spread pro-environmental engagement beyond the specifically-targeted behavior if they include self-interested justifications (as many campaigns do at present)."

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