What determines whether we act in an environmentally-friendly way? A (mostly) psychological perspective

The carbon emissions of any one person are minute in the context of global climate change. And yet, in aggregate, in the developed world at least, our environmental footprints give rise to the host of problems faced today: we are all a small part of something bigger.

The recognition of the importance of individual actions has led to a growing number of studies examining the personal and structural determinants of environmentally-significant behaviour. Related research has sought to influence or intervene in ways that lead to more sustainable behaviours and ways of life.

From the perspective of individual psychology, one of the clearest determinants of environmentally-friendly personal action is an intention to act in this way. This might sound obvious, but it’s important to reflect that most of us, most of the time, don’t actually pay conscious attention to the relevance of our actions for climate change. In the course of a normal day, how often does this consideration cross your mind?

Where such ‘pro-environmental’ intention is evident, this is typically a product of multiple precursors relating to a person’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. The extent to which a person feels they have control over their actions is a key factor here. For example, if people think that there are feasible alternatives to driving then they may be inclined to use them; by contrast, if a person feels they have little choice but to use a car, they are more likely to continue to do so.

Another key influence on environmentally-friendly behaviour is whether a person holds a positive or negative opinion about the specific action in question: our attitudes exert an important sway over our actions. In the case of transport, again, a person might know that a regular bus passes right by their house and to their place of work – but if they hold a negative view of public transport, they may still be unwilling to make use of it.

The influence of personal and social expectations is also incorporated in several models of pro-environmental behaviour. The sense that undertaking an action – or refraining from doing so – is morally the right thing to do, affects individual behaviour. These ‘personal norms’ are in turn underpinned by our more deeply-held values, including the extent to which a person emphasises regard for other people and the environment in their personal value system, versus an emphasis on their own interests. In her 2013 paper, Rachel Howell concludes that for those with particularly strong commitments to live a low-carbon lifestyle, this was typically founded on motivations and concern about other people, rather than by a concern about the ‘environment’ in itself. We discuss the role of values, worldview and ideology in more detail in an upcoming blog.

As well as the individual expectations we have of ourselves, what we perceive to be the expectations of others has the potential to affect whether or not we adopt environmentally-significant behaviours. In cases where there is a strong social norm to act in an appropriate way (e.g. recycling) this can be influential; however, many other actions arguably have little or no perceived social pressure attached to them for most people (e.g. avoiding eating meat or flying). Indeed, some studies have drawn attention to the tendency of many campaigns and research studies to focus on simpler but less-impactful behaviours, rather than those actions which might be more important but which are typically overlooked.

Whereas these influences on environmentally-significant behaviour relate largely to conscious, deliberate action, it is also important to recognise that many actions of relevance to climate change are more habitual. Many of our actions repetitive and ingrained, and may be undertaken with little conscious reflection. An example of this is commuting behaviour: once a typical way of getting to work is established, a person might well use the same mode of transport on a daily basis, with little active consideration given to alternatives or to the wider implications of that option. Some sociologists have emphasised that many such ‘habitual’ actions are in fact more deeply embedded in the fabric of daily life. For example, it has become normal in many cultures to eat meat, travel by car, and fly abroad on holiday. For all the intricate models of pro-environmental behaviour, it is also salutary to recognise that one of the most important influences on most people’s carbon footprint is not how much they care about climate change or hope to limit their impact, but their income and where they live in the world.

The influences on our environmentally-significant behaviours described above are supported by extensive research, and yet also reflect common sense: if we feel that we can act, have a positive view of a behaviour, and have a strong sense of personal obligation to do so, then we are more likely to take the relevant course of action. An emphasis on these factors also points to the opportunity to change or influence them. For example, tactics designed to promote action in line with people’s values can be effective even in cases where people are unconcerned about climate change per se. In a 2012 study, Paul Bain and colleagues showed that those who they described as climate change ‘deniers’ were motivated to support climate change mitigation efforts where these were presented as promoting a better society in which people were more considerate and caring. With respect to the habitual nature of much behaviour, field studies have shown that habits can be ‘disrupted’ by targeting key moments in time (such as moving house or job) when people may be reconsidering the choices they make.

What is clear overall from the evidence base, is that whether or not a person undertakes and environmentally-friendly action – or refrains from a harmful choice – is related to a large number of factors at the personal, social, and cultural levels. This makes changing behaviour complicated, but also provides multiple routes through which it can be attempted.

Burning questions

How can pro-environmental behaviour change best be accomplished for those with the highest carbon footprints (i.e. people on higher incomes)?

How can high-impact behaviours best be addressed, particularly in cases where there has so far been little conversation about their relevance?

By Stuart Capstick

Stuart Capstick is a Research Associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. Stuart is interested in how people understand and respond to climate change, and what determines our level of interest and concern.

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