Brain vs. Nature

Why is it so difficult to live in accordance with one’s values when it comes to pro-environmental behavior?

I love coffee. I also consider myself an environmentalist. And like many others who self-identify this way, I often make decisions that are undoubtedly not the best environmental choices. Like my coffee consumption. According to several carbon footprint calculators, if others drank as much coffee as I do, a couple of extra Earths would be required to support our habits. So, why do I, and others like me, act in a way that clearly flies in the face of our environmental values and attitudes?

Obviously there are many practical or situational constraints that might prevent one from acting in accordance with one’s values (caffeine dependency being only one example). But there are also psychological issues that affect why individuals who already hold pro-environmental attitudes might fail to act in accordance with them.

Trying to make complex decisions on too little information and too little sleep.
Personally, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the scope of the environmental challenges facing us. I understand the scale of the problem and the factors that are contributing so forcefully to climate change. I get the “Big Picture,” from the top down. Nonetheless, it still takes extra cognitive effort to figure out how my daily individual actions may hinder or help the cause because the “Big Picture” is complicated when viewed from the bottom up.

My car is 14 years old. It gets good gas mileage, better than many new cars on the market today. But I could get better mileage if I replaced it with a Prius. Should I do that? If I buy the Prius, I probably wouldn’t junk my old car. It still runs, and supposedly my make and model is good for at least another 50,000 miles. Maybe I should sell it? If I sell it to someone else, and I buy a Prius, I’ll improve my gas mileage, but I’ll have added another operating vehicle to the vast fleet of cars already on the planet. Moreover, I’ve heard it said that you would need to drive a Prius for many miles to offset the carbon cost associated with its manufacture. So, maybe I should keep my old car. But perhaps my old car is not running as cleanly as it once was. . . . The parade of imponderables arising from what started off seeming like a clear environmental choice seems almost endless. And while purchasing a car is an infrequent decision, deciding on “paper or plastic” or “organic or local” are routine and contain just as many imponderables when closely examined.

To make these kinds of decisions, I need good information. But much of the discussion around climate change and other environmental concerns (e.g., endocrine disruptors) is filled with scientific terminology. If I’m not trained in the relevant field, either I have to spend considerable cognitive effort and time learning the basic jargon or find trusted sources to serve as guides as to how my choices translate into environmental currency. But even finding trusted sources could involve an extraordinary amount of cognitive effort. How would I know whether the “Best Earth Institute” was an honest provider of environmental information or was a lobbying front for the petroleum industry? Should I look for trusted sources to vet my trusted sources?

From a psychological standpoint, people are more willing to engage in this extra effort when deeply committed to a particular value; but they also have to be in the position to expend the extra effort required. Alas, the hectic, hassled world in which most of us live does not lend itself to the thoughtful assessment of our behaviors, much less extensive information gathering to decide what brand of toilet paper to buy. Consequently, well-informed, researched decisions about daily actions and lifestyles often manifest themselves as a disconnect between attitudes and behaviors. Even when people care, they will default to the “easier” option if they are cognitively overloaded.

Killing the messenger who brings the difficult news.
Having good information readily available and sufficient cognitive space in which to process it may not be enough. People have a tendency to twist information towards their existing biases and ease. Generally speaking, we are uncomfortable when there is dissonance between our attitudes and behaviors. This discomfort can serve as a positive motivator to change. However, when we are confronted with information that would require us to change our behavior dramatically in order for us to act consistently with our expressed pro-environmental attitudes, we may well find ourselves underestimating the quality of the information or overestimating the uncertainty surrounding it. When reason tells us that we will need to make a major change, it is not unusual to think, “Well, if you’re going to ask me to make that big a change, I want to be certain that your information is accurate and certain. And it’s starting to look less accurate and less certain the more I look at it. Perhaps I’ll spend some more time considering the situation. Maybe tomorrow.” Once information is deemed inaccurate or uncertain, it can be more readily devalued and ignored.

In the environmental arena, this tendency is particularly problematic, because much of the climate-change discussion seems to be shrouded in doubt and uncertainty. The media in the United States still speaks of an ongoing climate-change “debate,” even though scientific opinion overwhelmingly agrees that climate change is occurring, that human behavior is part of the cause, and that it’s all happening faster than we thought. The only debate or uncertainty in scientific opinion seems to be exactly how bad the consequences of climate change will be at a given point in time (not if, but when). However, this general sense of uncertainty placates us: “If the scientists aren’t clear what the consequences of climate change are going to be, then I can wait to worry. Perhaps I still have time to buy a few more cases of coffee.”

Well, then, what are the Joneses doing?
Whether we acknowledge it—or know it—we look towards others in determining appropriate actions. This is particularly true when we’re not sure ourselves. Checking out what others are doing carries with it a bit of social apprehension. When we attend to what others do, we assume they are also attending to us. This consciousness carries with it a perceived risk: If living in accordance with one’s personal attitudes takes one too far outside what is considered “normal” behavior, then there is a risk—sometimes real, sometimes merely perceived—that one will be rejected or sanctioned in some way. (“Man, can you believe it? She reuses her Saran wrap!”) Under such circumstances, even if this perceived risk is unfounded, we may avoid taking the risk, and “pull back” from pro-environmental behaviors if it appears that those behaviors fall too far outside the permissible range (or typical behavior) of the groups with which we are comparing ourselves.

However, with this phenomenon in mind, we can see that normative feedback can also encourage pro-environmental behavior. When we see the Joneses engaging in pro-environmental behavior, or think the Joneses are engaging in pro- environmental behavior, then we are less likely to be dissuaded from following our own inclinations to do so as well. Conversely, we might engage in a pro- environmental behavior because others do. Goldstein and colleagues found that when hotel guests are asked to “join their fellow guests” in saving water by reusing towels, they are much more likely to do so compared to guests who are simply provided information about how much water would be saved if they reused their towels without referencing others. This type of feedback is even more persuasive when the reference group is similar to the target (i.e., when the reference group is another guest who stayed in your very own hotel room).

Because of its power, social-norm feedback holds much promise in nudging pro-environmental behavior. But we need to be cautious, because when people are engaging in atypical but pro-environmental behavior, feedback that they are not among the crowd can result in adjusting their behavior towards the group norm. (For example, Schultz and colleagues found that homeowners informed that their electric usage was less than the average for their neighborhood may increase their electric use the next month.) This boomerang effect can be countered with feedback that indicates approval of the pro-environmental behavior (something as simple as a smiley face on an electric bill for a low usage customer). Social influence is both powerful and stealthy—people are rarely aware of the extent to which they adjust their behavior because of this type of social pressure.

Both the apparent impact of social influence and our apparent lack of awareness of its power have at least four important implications from a pro-environmental standpoint. First, these phenomena suggest that increasing the awareness of community members who engage in pro-environmental behaviors should have a ripple effect, as these people serve as exemplars and help shift the expectation of normative behavior towards pro-environmental choices. Second, they remind us that we are both affected by others’ behaviors and serve as role models for others who are themselves trying to figure out how to behave. If we act in a pro-environmental manner, we are helping others do the same. Third, if living in accordance with our environmental values is really important, it would behoove us to seek out other like-minded individuals—it is far easier to “stick to one’s guns” when we see others doing the same on a daily basis. And, of course, when enough pro-environmentalists are seen doing their pro-environmental things, well, it starts to look like the norm. Finally, given that people are predisposed to use normative information to decide what behavior is appropriate, we need to be cautious in how we discuss environmentally damaging behaviors. If the explicit message is that the majority of people waste food, litter, and drive instead of walking, we may be increasing the very behaviors we are trying to decrease. Public service messages about littering should not make it appear commonplace, but should rather ask the public to join others in protecting the environment.

I haven’t touched on the individual difference factors that make it easier or harder for some of us to live in accordance with our values. The American Psychological Association recently published a report on psychology’s role in understanding and advancing our knowledge of environmental issues. It is a great primer and is available on its Web site.

And then there’s the power of a public commitment. People feel a need to follow through on their commitments—particularly public ones. Making a public commitment regarding a goal, even a small one, makes it easier to act in accordance with it. So, for example, I am going to commit right here, in print, to reduce my coffee consumption by 50 percent and replace it with a local beverage. Talk with me in September, and I’ll let you know how it’s going.

Professor Michelle McCauley has taught in Middlebury’s psychology department since 1995. Among the courses she teaches are Cognitive Psychology, Eco-Psychology/Human Behavior, and Environmental Problems and Behavior. She also oversees the newly developed Conservation Psychology Laboratory.

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  1. Dear Professor McCauley,

    Thanks for this interesting article. Definitely food for thought. I hope the coffee cutback has gone well. Saludos from the Earth Charter International Secretariat in Costa Rica (land of mucho coffee).


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