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The Deep Roots of 'Green' Behavior

New research finds the best predictor of environmentally conscious living is a person's fundamental life goals.
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(Photo: rowent/Flickr)

(Photo: rowent/Flickr)

No matter what laws are passed, treaties are signed, or new technologies are developed, combating climate change will ultimately come down to changing human behavior. So it's essential to understand what motivates us to behave in environmentally responsible ways.

A new longitudinal study, conducted in two countries, finds holding pro-green views does not necessarily correspond to Earth-friendly behavior. Surprisingly, neither does feeling a close connection to the natural world.

But you can get a good idea of who will live a sustainability focused, light-footprint life if you consider the long-range goals they have set for themselves.

A person determined to achieve wealth and/or power is unlikely to behave in "green" ways, no matter what he may preach. But someone focused on self-realization, service to others, and/or community involvement very likely will.

Start doing your part for the planet, and you might find your goals shift from fleeting, worldly success to ensuring the well-being of future generations.

"We conclude that focusing on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, life goals may be important not just for individuals' well-being, but also for the well-being of future generations," writes a research team led by Wenceslao Unanue of Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile. Their study is published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Unanue and his three colleagues conducted a longitudinal study in both a developed and a developing nation: Great Britain (where they surveyed 461 people) and Chile (76 people). Participants, who were recruited from university alumni lists in both countries, were initially questioned in 2010, then again in 2011 and 2012.

The survey featured sets of questions designed to measure life goals, pro-environment worldviews, the degree to which they identified with the natural environment, and whether they engaged in one or more of 10 environmentally responsible behaviors.

In the "life goals" section, participants reported (on a scale of one to seven) how important they considered a series of aspirations, including "To have my name known by many people," "To successfully hide the signs of aging," "To grow and learn new things," and "To have good friends I can count on."

For the "environmental identification" section, they reported their level of agreement with such statements as "For me, engaging with the natural environment gives me a greater sense of who I am." "Environmental responsible behaviors" included taking public transportation when feasible, and boycotting companies that engage in harmful environmental practices.

Comparing attitudes in 2010 with behaviors two years later, the researchers found "life goals prospectively predicted environmentally responsible behavior," while "rather unexpectedly, environmental worldviews and environmental identification did not."

Specifically, they report that, in both Chile and the United Kingdom., "the endorsement of extrinsic life goals, at the expense of intrinsic ones, was associated with less ecological behavior."

The researchers found some evidence that less materialistic life goals and environmentally friendly behavior may be mutually reinforcing. This makes sense: Engaging in activities like recycling or bicycling to work helps you fulfill the goal of being a responsible citizen, and that feeling of accomplishment presumably reinforces that positive behavior.

The finding that pro-environment political views and identification with nature did not predict "green" behavior was an unwelcome surprise. But, intriguingly, Unanue and his colleagues report that, for many people, actions come first, and attitudes follow.

"Our results suggest that pro-environmental worldviews, as well as environmental identification, might be better understood as consequences, rather than as antecedents, of environmentally friendly behaviors," the researchers write.

They note that, among their British participants, "environmentally responsible behavior predicted pro-environmental worldviews, which in turn predicted environmental identification."

"In order to feel that their behavior is consistent with their attitudes and identities, people may sometimes change their attitudes and identities to fit their behavior," they add.

So, "fake it 'til you make it" may be good advice not just to alcoholics, but also to people who aspire to accumulating money, fame, or power. Start doing your part for the planet, and you just might find your goals starting to shift from fleeting, worldly success to ensuring the well-being of future generations.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.