Research & Insights

Social Butterflies Encourage Eco-friendly Behaviors In Their Neighbors

New research from the University of Vermont suggests that our neighbors may be good for more than just borrowing an occasional cup of sugar, they may actually have an impact on how we treat the environment.

Using data from the General Social Survey, an annual nationwide survey of Americans, researchers Thomas Macias and Kristin Williams designed a study to better understand how social relationships shape our environmentalist tendencies. They found that people who socialize with their neighbors more were more likely to engage in environmentally-friendly activities like conserving energy and water.

The study involved thousands of participants who answered questions about their “environmental lifestyle…recycling, purchasing chemical-free produce, using less household energy, driving less, and avoiding products for environmental reasons” as well as their socializating habits and the degree to which they trust other people and the government. The results were compared in a series of models which allowed the researchers to hold constant factors like education and income.

Macias and Williams found that, while environmental attitudes themselves were the largest predictors of pro-environmental behaviors, people who had frequent social interactions with neighbors were more likely to have environmentally-conscious habits than people who socialize less.

The researchers suspect that this connection may have to do with the ability of neighbors, who tend to share similar social and economic features with one another, to share environmental information. “[R]egular interactions with those nearby create opportunities to share resources and low-impact alternatives to the status quo,” Macias and Williams note.

“It is clear that one of the biggest challenges inherent in trying to promote conservation is the dearth of models mainstream American culture to follow,” explain Macias and Williams. “In the current environment, backyard conversations, sidewalk exchanges, and neighborly visits may be some of the best sources of learning about water catchment systems for gardening, carpooling opportunities, savings accrued through thermostat adjustments, and other environmentally friendly practices.”

These findings highlight the importance of community-building for people working on environmental issues.

“Policies that foster social interactions at the community level through online forums, neighborhood organizations, or local opportunities to volunteer may prove in the long run to be at least as important to addressing environmental crisis as social marketing aimed at promoting household efficiency improvements.”

Environment and Behavior

Thomas Macias and Kristin Williams, University of Vermont

Posted: July 13, 2015
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