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In Promoting Green Behaviors, Pride Beats Guilt

New research suggests a shift in pro-environmental messaging.
A local recycling scheme in Matakana, New Zealand.

A local recycling scheme in Matakana, New Zealand.

When it comes to our relationship to the environment, we have a lot to feel guilty about. That has led many environmental organizations to leverage that uncomfortable feeling. Don't recycle that bottle, and it'll probably end up in the ocean, where fish will eat the degraded plastic and die. How does that make you feel?

It turns out that this is not an optimal approach to promoting environmentally friendly behavior. Recent research concludes that, when it comes to saving the Earth, pride is a far stronger motivator than guilt.

"Our findings suggest a rethinking of environmental and climate-change messaging," said Elke Weber, a psychologist affiliated with both Princeton University and Columbia University. She co-authored the study, in the online journal PLoS One, with three colleagues led by Claudia Schneider.

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The participants—987 Americans recruited online—were all given a series of scenarios in which they were asked to choose between an environmentally friendly and an environmentally unfriendly option. For example, in one, "they could chose as few or as many as 14 green amenities for their apartment, such as an energy-star rated fridge. Each amenity added $3 extra per month to their rent."

As they did so, some saw a sentence displayed on the top of their computer screen, which advised them to "keep in mind that you might feel proud about your decisions." Others saw the alternate message, "Keep in mind that you might feel guilty about your decisions." Still others were asked to either imagine, then briefly write, about a choice that would make them feel either pride or guilt.

In four out of five scenarios, those who had thought or wrote about pride (or were exposed to the on-screen reminder) were more likely to make pro-environment choices than those who had guilt on their mind. (For one thing, they selected more energy-saving appliances for their imaginary living space.)

The results suggest that, while the thought of avoiding uncomfortable feelings of guilt will motivate some people to do the right thing, generating a positive emotion—pride—appears to be more effective.

Oftentimes, "People respond poorly when told to feel badly about themselves for some perceived moral failing," the researchers write. Because of this, "many efforts to induce such feelings fall flat, or perhaps even boomerang, resulting in a lack of behavior change, or possibly even retaliatory behavior."

Make me feel guilty, will you? My gum wrapper is going on the ground!

The researchers concede that further study will be needed to discover if induced pride can "produce sustainable changes in actual behaviors over time." But this research points in that promising direction.

Volumes of psychological literature confirm our strong desire to feel good about ourselves. There are few better motivators than giving people a way to do just that.