How Social Identity can Influence Conservation

Many factors can influence how people treat the earth. Social identity is one of them. Forward on Climate 19801 by Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0
Many factors can influence how people treat the earth. Social identity is one of them. Forward on Climate 19801 by Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago, I summarized two of the most utilized theories in social psychology: social identity theory (SIT) (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self-categorization theory (SCT) (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). These theories form the backbone of the social identity approach, which has been used to explain a wide range of phenomenon. This includes school bullying (Jones, Manstead, & Livingstone, 2009; Ojala & Nesdale, 2004), prejudice (Haslam, Reicher, & Reynolds, 2012), and ethnocentrism (Tajfel, 1982). There is also a growing body of literature that uses the social identity approach to understand conservation behavior.

*Note: This post will make more sense if you also read the introduction to this topic.

Recall that according to SIT, those group memberships that are important to us make up our social identities. Because this comprises part of our self-concept, we are motivated to maximize the positive distinctiveness of these groups. This means we work to increase their status and uniqueness in comparison to relevant out-groups (Hornsey, 2008; Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Unique styles of dress can be easily visible forms of social norms. Patriotic fans on The Mall by Not Enough Megapixels. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Unique styles of dress can be easily visible forms of social norms. Patriotic fans on The Mall by Not Enough Megapixels. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

These premises have several implications for how people treat the environment (henceforward called stewardship). First of all, one way groups maximize their distinctiveness is by developing norms that separate them from other groups (Cinoğlu & Arikan, 2012; Haslam et al., 2012; Hornsey, 2008). These norms have repeatedly been shown to influence stewardship behaviors.

For example, Marchini and Macdonald (2012) combined descriptive norms (how other people behave), group identity (how strongly participants identified with their in-groups), and the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) (Ajzen, 1985) to predict ranchers’ intentions to kill jaguars. They found that in the Pantanal, descriptive norms and group identity significantly contributed to interviewees’ intentions to kill jaguars (Marchini & Macdonald, 2012). In fact, many Pantanal residents openly admit that hunting jaguars is an important part of their culture (Cavalcanti, Marchini, Zimmermann, Gese, & Macdonald, 2010).

But perhaps the cleverest application of social norms to stewardship comes from Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008). They tested whether or not telling hotel guests that most people reused their towels would motivate participants to do the same. In other words, Goldstein et al. (2008) established a descriptive norm. They found that this approach was significantly more effective than education. The most powerful message was the one which stated that most past residents of the room guests were staying in had reused their towels (Goldstein et al., 2008). This suggests that communications that utilize a specific and situationally relevant identity will be the most potent.

Goldstein et al. were able to use identity-related messaging to get hotel guests to reuse their towels. Towel-759980_1920 by Tesa Robbins. CC0 1.0
Goldstein et al. (2008) used identity-related messages to get hotel guests to reuse their towels. Towel-759980_1920 by Tesa Robbins. CC0 1.0

Similar to Marchini and Macdonald (2012), several authors have combined the social identity approach with the TPB (Ajzen, 1985) to predict ecologically meaningful behaviors. Bamberg, Rees, and Seebauer (2015) used this approach to examine participants’ intentions to engage in collective climate action. They tested three integrated models, and consistently found social identity to be the most significant predictor (Bamberg, Rees, & Seebauer, 2015).

However, the most important social identity principle is in-group bias. This refers to the tendency to put our own groups first, and it is one way of increasing positive distinctiveness (Hornsey, 2008). In-group bias leads us to disregard recommendations from out-groups, engage in self-defeating behaviors (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and sometimes to blatantly discriminate against those we view as “other” (Hornsey, 2008). It also applies to conservation.

In his publicly available thesis, Silvio Marchini (2010) found that residents of the Amazon deforestation frontier in Brazil were resistant to messages from outside conservationists. Instead, they were more strongly influenced by the opinions of in-group members. Marchini (2010) was able to make use of this by getting community institutions, local schools, to endorse jaguar conservation. He found that when educational materials were received from their children’s schools, they had a stronger impact on fathers’ perceptions of jaguar killing than when they were received from conservationists (Marchini, 2010).

In line with SIT and SCT, Marchini (2010) found that educational materials had a bigger impact when they were endorsed by in-group members. Jaguar Stare by Nathan Rupert. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In line with SIT and SCT, Marchini (2010) found that educational materials had a bigger impact when they were endorsed by in-group members (local schools). Jaguar Stare by Nathan Rupert. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In-group bias is particularly strong when a group’s positive distinctiveness is threatened (Ojala & Nesdale, 2004; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). When inhabitants of the Baviaanskloof valley in South Africa perceived their farmer identities to be under attack from conservationists, it sparked a bitter and protracted conflict between the two groups. The dynamics between them became so bad that each group selectively reconstructed its history to make themselves appear better than the out-group. One farmer was ostracized simply for approaching the conservationists about ecotourism opportunities. The animosity between the groups became part of their identities; so much so that attempts to resolve the conflict were seen as threats (de Vries, Aarts, Lokhorst, Beunen, & Munnink, 2015).

Social identity clearly matters when it comes to caring for our shared planet. But how can conservationists use the above findings to encourage stewardship? That will be the topic of my next post in this series.

Further Reading:

de Vries, J. R., Aarts, N., Lokhorst, A. M., Beunen, R., Munnink, J. O. (2015). Trust related dynamics in contested land use: A longitudinal study towards trust and distrust in intergroup conflicts in the Baviaanskloof, South Africa. Forest Policy and Economics, 50, 302-310. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2014.07.014.

Exploring Group Processes with the Social Identity Approach

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, C. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472-482. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/586910.

Marchini, S. (2010). Human dimensions of the conflicts between people and jaguars (Panthera onca) in Brazil (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://usp-br1.academia.edu/SilvioMarchini.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “How Social Identity can Influence Conservation

  1. I would be honest here: I have not taken any Psychology courses ever but I feel I knew what you were talking about. I feel Psychological studies are mostly confirming by recent studies what spiritual people and sages have been talking about for millennia.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Love and light <3

    Anand :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You bring up an interesting point. In the counseling program I recently left, many of the professors included spirituality as an important aspect of treatment. They said that healthy, non-abusive spiritual practices can help people overcome life’s challenges. One professor even claimed that spiritual dilemmas can lead to mental health disorders, such as depression. So there definitely is an overlap between the two.

      Liked by 2 people

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