Research & Insights

When It Comes to Green Behavior, No One Wants to Be Left in the Dust

“You’re the worst” may be an impolite thing to say to someone, but when it comes to encouraging environmental actions, it’s also effective, according to a study out of Duke University.

The study, published in the January 2014 issue of the journal Environment and Behavior and conducted by researchers Kaitlin Toner, Muping Gan, and Mark Leary, suggests that people are more likely to commit to big changes – such as taking the time to actively research the environmental impacts of companies they support – to help protect the planet when they believe that they are more ecologically harmful than their peers.

Ninety undergraduate students participated in the study, which began with an assessment of students’ environmental behaviors. Participants were asked questions about their lifestyle (“When feasible, I walk to my destination” and “I use natural light by opening window shades to let in sunlight,” for instance), ostensibly to score their environmental impact.

However, rather than receiving a score on the basis of their actual behaviors, the students were instead given a score which showed either a moderate or severe impact on the environment based on their lifestyle.

Additionally, the students received a comparative score, which presented their lifestyle as either moderately more harmful to the environment or much more harmful to the environment than people at their university. Some students were told that society would require “between three and four earths if everyone behaved like the average student at their university,” or that we would require “between five and six earths.”

After receiving the feedback, the students then rated how good or bad they felt about themselves and how embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty they felt. They were also asked how frequently they intended to engage in eco-friendly behaviors over the next 6 months. For instance, participants reported “the frequency with which they would…drive…less by carpooling or taking public transportation, [and] conserve…paper by reading articles online and writing/editing papers on the computer instead of printing them out.”

The researchers found that “participants expressed the greatest proenvironmental intentions when their individual feedback was worse than that of the group average,” particularly for high-commitment changes such as changing one’s diet and distributing environmental information.

“[O]ur participants showed a lower intention to behave environmentally when they believed that their group’s environmental impact was as negative as their own. Thus, participants appeared motivated to change their behavior only when they believed they were less environmentally conscious than their peers,” the researchers explained.

“[P]eople may be more motivated to behave in environmentally friendly ways when they believe that their current environmental impact differs from an important reference group.”

Environment and Behavior

Kaitlin Toner, Muping Gan, and Mark R. Leary, Duke University

Posted: January 13, 2016
Tagged as: