Appeals to Selfishness Can Help People Act in a More Pro-Environmental Way

Photo: Hendrik Holler/LOOK-foto/Getty Images

There’s a fair amount of research suggesting that if you want people to act in a more environmentally friendly manner, making explicitly environmental arguments might not be the best idea. Researchers like Jon Haidt and Dan Kahan have been arguing for years now that people are more likely to respond to arguments that tap into their deepest values and identities than identities that are mostly about facts or other people’s values. A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t identify as environmentalists, or believe the factual claims made by environmentalists, and therefore certain sorts of messaging are likely to bounce right off them.

Over at BPS Research Digest, Alex Fradera runs down the latest example: an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology which reports on a set of studies in which the researchers “contacted 183 working adults who commuted in private vehicles, and asked them to imagine that their company was closing their car park to extend their premises, offering as compensation a public transport subsidy.” In one condition, “the decision was justified exclusively on environmental grounds, pointing out the benefits of reducing traffic density and jams, as well as increasing the proportion of energy-efficient vehicles on the road.” In another, the decision “was not exclusively focused on the environment, but was also tied to a range of personal goals like saving cash, encouraging more exercise, and having more time to read.” Those in the personal-goals condition were more likely to say they would ditch their cars for public transport — usually the desired result when authorities reduce the supply of parking available.

In the real world, of course, people make decisions that have an environmental impact based on a huge number of factors, and a lab study like this can never fully capture this complexity. Still, as Fradera puts it, the study is a useful reminder “to be humble when it comes to other people’s beliefs: it’s presumptuous to expect that people will care about your priorities because you tell them to.”

Appeals to Selfishness Can Boost Environmentalism