Faith in Scientific Progress Decreases Eco-Friendly Behavior

A new study finds affirming belief in scientific progress appears to reduce the likelihood of acting in environmentally responsible ways.
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(Illustration: whanwhan.ai/Shutterstock)

(Illustration: whanwhan.ai/Shutterstock)

Advocates for environmental action also tend to be strong believers in science. Could this explain why they’ve had so little success in persuading people to change their behaviors?

That provocative question is raised by a newly published paper, which suggests faith in science takes some of the pressure off of us to behave responsibly.

“When media outlets paint a picture of omniscient science and unconditional and ongoing progress, one consequence may be that people become passive and less motivated to behave in environmentally friendly ways,” University of Amsterdam researchers Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens write in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

“Looking more critically at the power of science and the limits of progress could—somewhat ironically—encourage people to take matters into their own hands and make environmentally friendly choices.”

If we’re convinced some powerful force—be it God or science—has things under control, we can comfortably remain passive. But fear of chaos leads us to take things into our own hands, increasing our motivation to take action.

Meijers and Rutjens provide evidence for this somewhat counter-intuitive argument in the form of four studies. In one of them, 43 university students read one of two newspaper articles—one in which the progress of science was questioned, or another in which it was affirmed.

They then filled out a series of questionnaires, including one that measured their perception of disorder (they responded to statements like “Our lives are ruled by randomness”), and another which addressed their eco-friendly behaviors, or lack thereof (“I intend to wash my clothes at a lower temperature for the sake of the environment”).

Finally, the participants went on a virtual food-shopping trip, considering products in six categories including pasta and beans. One of the three products in each category was organic; the students were instructed to choose any one of the three.

The results: Those who read the article affirming belief in scientific progress “displayed less environmentally friendly attitudes and intentions,” were less likely to choose the organic products. What’s more, their answers suggested they were less likely to perceive the world as disorderly.

Meijers and Rutjens attribute these results to compensatory control theory, which states that humans have a strong desire to see the world as “meaningful, ordered, and structured.” According to this school of thought, if we’re convinced some powerful force—be it God or science—has things under control, we can comfortably remain passive. But fear of chaos leads us to take things into our own hands, increasing our motivation to take action.

If these researchers are right, they’ve found quite an irony. Climate-change deniers have consistently attempted to discredit the entire school of global warming research, accusing researchers of exaggeration or even fraud. Their assumption is that muddying the waters in this way will turn people against science, and make them less likely to listen to the warning of scientists.

That may be true. But according to this model, at least some people compensate for a lack of faith in science by taking action on their own.

So, once all the arguments are made, if you are left with a vague notion that something scary is going on in the environment, but science doesn’t have a good handle on it, that combination may actually inspire you to take action. Recycling may be a pain, but if it helps you regain a comforting sense of an ordered universe, it's well worth it.

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