Attitudes via Behaviors Part 2: Implications for Common Behaviors and Financial Incentives

According to social psychological research, choosing to perform relatively simple environmentally responsible behaviors might lead to more significant actions in the future. 070622-N-2143T-002 by the US Navy. Public domain.
According to social psychological research, choosing to perform relatively simple environmentally responsible behaviors might lead to more significant actions in the future. 070622-N-2143T-002 by the US Navy. Public Domain.
Intro

In a previous post, I explored some of the ways our behaviors can change our attitudes. This post will examine how those findings can influence conservation.

Recall that according to self-perception theory (Bem, 1967), we infer our attitudes from our observations of our own behavior. Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957), on the other hand, claims that actions which contradict our beliefs invoke the negative sensation of dissonance. If our behaviors cannot easily be attributed to situational factors, we might adjust our attitudes in order to alleviate dissonance.

Taken together, these theories can have important implications for encouraging environmental stewardship.

Forming ‘Green’ Identities through Everyday Behavior

One significant extension of self-perception theory (Bem, 1967) is the foot-in-the-door technique. When individuals agree to a small request, they may come to view themselves as “The kind of person who does this sort of thing” (Freedman & Fraser, 1966, p. 201). They might therefore become more likely to acquiesce to larger requests in the future. Indeed, Thøgersen & Noblet (2012) found that Maine residents who bought environmentally friendly products were more likely to support an expansion of wind power in their state.

A study by Cornelissen, Pandelaere, Warlop, and Dewitte (2008) suggests that the power of these common behaviors can be increased through positive cueing. Cornelissen et al. (2008) contend that because many people perform them, everyday green behaviors are often not considered indicative of a pro-environmental identity. Labeling them as environmentally friendly; while simultaneously having people think about times when they engaged in these acts, led participants to make more sustainable choices. This is likely because participants came to view themselves as more environmentally conscious. This effect was not observed when less common environmental behaviors were highlighted, such as riding one’s bike to work. Social marketing campaigns that emphasize what an audience is doing right, rather than what they are doing wrong, may thus produce larger gains in ecologically responsible behavior (Cornelissen et al., 2008).

Cueing people to think of relatively uncommon environmental behaviors, such as using a bike for transportation, can lead them to think about how often they do not do them. This can prevent them from identifying as green individuals, thereby failing to increase their motivation to care for the environment. Bicycle by Stephen Downes. CC BY-NC 2.0
Cueing people to think of relatively uncommon environmental behaviors, such as using a bike for transportation, can lead them to think about how often they do not perform them. This can prevent them from identifying as green individuals, thereby failing to increase their motivation to care for the environment. Bicycle by Stephen Downes. CC BY-NC 2.0
Warning!

There is an important caveat to the foot-in-the-door technique. When the initial request is too easy, it can lead to licensing: a subsequent decrease in pro-social behavior. Because overly simple acts do not alter one’s self-perception, they can lead one to believe, “I have done my good deed for the day,” and to therefore behave more selfishly in the future. So the entry behavior for a foot-in-the-door technique should involve some effort (Gneezy, Imas, Brown, Nelson, & Norton, 2012).

Implications for Financial Incentives

According to both cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) and self-perception theory (Bem, 1967), attitude change does not follow behaviors that have clear external justifications. Using monetary arguments to convince people to act sustainably can even undermine their motivation to perform environmentally friendly behaviors, because they come to view themselves as more self-interested than before (Evans et al., 2012). Since financial incentives are quite popular for encouraging tolerance of wildlife, are conservationists dooming themselves to failure?

In one of my earliest posts, I shared a story about how the Snow Leopard Trust is using a system of financial incentives to discourage hunting of snow leopards and their prey. What does the aforementioned research mean for programs such as this? Kyrgyzstan 1 by Snow Leopard Trust. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
In one of my earliest posts, I shared a story about how the Snow Leopard Trust is using a system of financial incentives to discourage hunting of snow leopards and their prey. What does the aforementioned research mean for programs such as this? Kyrgyzstan 1 by Snow Leopard Trust. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Not necessarily. In most studies on the matter, attitude change was prevented by giving participants exorbitant rewards; such as paying them $20 (in 1950s money) to tell a small lie (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). The overjustification effect, which I described here, also only applies to payments made for behaviors that would have been performed anyway. It does not seem to deal with actions that would not have been carried out without an incentive. This means that paying people just enough to act in pro-conservation ways might avoid some of the drawbacks of financial incentives.

It would also help to directly tie payments to conservation outcomes. Eisenberger and Shanock (2003) showed that when rewards were clearly linked to creativity, they increased participants’ originality. But rewards given regardless of performance, or for meaningless work, can reduce intrinsic motivation. These findings reiterate the fact that payments for ecosystem services (PES) need to be strongly and transparently linked to the results they hope to encourage (St. John, Keane, & Milner-Gulland, 2013).

When used correctly, rewards can increase self-efficacy and lead to better performance in the desired domain. Lamech Rewarded for Good Grades by cajean2. CC BY-SA 2.0
When used correctly, rewards can increase self-efficacy and lead to better performance in the desired domain. Lamech Rewarded for Good Grades by cajean2. CC BY-SA 2.0
Conclusion

Research into self-perception and cognitive dissonance theories (Bem, 1967; Festinger, 1957) has demonstrated that it is possible to initiate environmentally friendly attitude change by getting individuals to act in ways that are ecologically responsible. Carrying out relatively common behaviors can lead one to adopt a green identity: if they are cued to think of such actions as ‘green.’ Conversely, having people reflect on less common activities can be detrimental (Cornelissen et al., 2008).

Lastly, care must be taken when using PES schemes. Financial incentives should ideally be the smallest amount that can motivate the desired behaviors, and they must be openly tied to their intended outcomes. This will make it harder for participants to fully blame their behavior on the payments, possibly making it easier for them to view themselves as conservationists.

Further Reading:

Cornelissen, G., Pandelaere, M., Warlop, L., & Dewitte, S. (2008). Positive cueing: Promoting sustainable consumer behavior by cueing common environmental behaviors as environmental. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 25(1), 46-55. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijresmar.2007.06.002.*

Eisenberger, R., & Shanock, L. (2003). Rewards, intrinsic motivation, and creativity: A case study of conceptual and methodological isolation. Creativity Research Journal, 15(2-3), 121-130. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2003.9651404.

Evans, L., Maio, G. R., Corner, A., Hodgetts, C. J., Ahmed, S., & Ulrike, H. (2012). Self-interest and pro-environmental behaviour. Nature Climate Change, 3(2), 122-125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1662.

Pootinga, W., Whitmarsh, L., & Suffolk, C. (2013). The introduction of a single-use carrier bag charge in Wales: Attitude change and behavioural spillover effects. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 240-247. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.09.001.

*This source is highly recommended.

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26 thoughts on “Attitudes via Behaviors Part 2: Implications for Common Behaviors and Financial Incentives

    1. ¡Muchas gracias por su apoyo! Sí, me creo es importante conocer como pensamos. Si somos enterados que nuestra conducta puede cambiar nuestras creencias, tal vez vamos a tener más cuidado con lo que hacemos…o lo que le pedimos a otras personas hacer.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and there’s a large amount of information that I left out in order to keep the post down to a reasonable length. Human behavior is one of the most complex subjects there is. But that means there’s always material left over for future posts ;)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Josh, what are your thoughts about the Harambe tragic at the zoo? Not as much about whether neglect on the parents behalf is involved, or the child perhaps being a little rambunctious and wandering off, but more about the reaction from the public who seem to show sympathy towards Harambe versus the child? My perception is there were more an emotional outcry and attachment to the gorilla and what had transpired than looking at the humanity aspect, the child. What does this say about human behavior? I agree, it is complex, and I realize this incident has many layers.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I actually haven’t been following that story, because I just have too much to do at the moment. But based on what you say it does appear that the public values the life of the gorilla above that of the child.

          I personally don’t think that’s right, but at this point I don’t feel comfortable guessing as to why that is, because I don’t want to mislead you. It may however be related to the fact that the gorilla appears much more innocent than the child or his family in this case. Americans are big subscribers to the illusion of a just world (good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people), so it might be less threatening to blame the child and his family for what happened than to acknowledge that sometimes stuff happens.

          Regardless of what the underlying reasons are for the public’s behavior, this is just an unfortunate event all around. We should mourn the loss of the gorilla while also being happy that the child wasn’t seriously hurt. At this point pointing fingers won’t do any good, although ALL zoos should reassess the safety of their exhibits.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I don’t think if someone asked me I could have answered any better. I am in agreement, there are no winners. The loss of Harambre should be mourn, and others should rejoice over the safety of the child. I agree, more should be done to reassess the safety issues. I believe this is in the process or already in consideration. Thanks for responding, even if time was permitted, in my opinion, you could not have responded any better than you have already.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Thanks Yvonne! The whole just world topic seems to be a major part of our culture. We seem to have a very hard time accepting the inherent randomness of life: someone always has to be blamed when things go wrong. Far too often this ends up being the victim, in an attempt to ‘justify’ what happened to them. In this case the gorilla, the child, and the child’s family are all victims; and they all deserve our empathy.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. I agree, you are right. Humanity and the different cultures in this world are so complex, the way we internalize things, we tend to find our own justification to place blame according to how we process things when they go wrong. In this instance, I agree, all are deserve empathy.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Very interesting research results. How to motivate people to consciously pursue practical day-to-day behaviour beneficial to the environment is certainly a conundrum. Perhaps there is a mental block when it comes to anything perceived to have to do with “green” or “environmental”, causing people to actively avoid the subject and by extension the related activities. So for example, a cyclist might be cycling for pleasure or freedom, but if one attaches the “environmental” label to the activity, they might be put off by being associated with being an “activist”. I think that potentially activism of any sort is perceived in a negative light, because it falls outside of societal conformity, and unfortunately “environmentalism” has had that label attached to it. It is unfortunate I think that natural inherent care for the environment does not motivate environmentally conscious life-styles organically, without having to use advanced marketing style techniques for motivation. There seems to be a huge disconnect between the (modern) human psyche and the natural environment and it is not clear how thus gap can be bridged. For example indigenous peoples don’t suffer from the cognitive dissonances that (developed world) city dwellers suffer from. Informative and though-provoking – thanks Josh!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Jacques! As I see it, part of the problem is that the term “evironmentalist” conjures up images of a highly specific type of person: a far-left, dreamy, and slightly confrontational individual who has a highly unorthodox appearance. I believe this is problematic, because few people (at least few Americans) can relate to this type of person. Since we tend to listen to those with whom we can relate, or in fancier lingo those who embody the norms of our social groups, this limits the amount of people who are willing to listen to what environmentalists have to say.

      Part of the trick, is to expand the definition of “environmentalist” to simply include anyone who cares about the state of the planet. One way to do this might be to highlight individuals from vastly different cultural groups who do things – mostly things that the average person can do – that demonstrate compassion towards the natural world.

      Another option, and the one used in the Cornelissen et al. study, is to very subtly get people to think of actions they already do as being good for the Earth. As you pointed out, activities that are good for the planet (like cycling) can have a whole host of motivations. That’s one reason why people who perform them often don’t self-identify as ‘green.’ All Cornelissen et al. did was to ask participants, “How often do you perform x environmentally friendly behavior,” and that seemed to be enough to get people to view themselves as someone who cares about the environment. Their subsequent behavior was then more environmentally friendly by participants who weren’t cued to think of such actions as environmentally friendly. This suggests that by labeling ambiguous activities as ‘green’ we can get more people to identify as environmentalists, even though as you pointed out there may be some people who are put off even by the term “environment.” But I believe this will be a very small segment of the population.

      As for the huge disconnect between modern (mostly urban) people and the natural world, I believe the key is to get people outside. We need to expand the amount of urban green space, or else make it easier for urban people to access more extensive natural areas. I believe that field trips, in which urban schoolchildren are taken to natural areas and are simply allowed to explore them, could do a lot of good. This effect might be even greater if we make an effort to get disadvantaged groups, those who have traditionally been excluded from the outdoors, into parks and other places. It might also help to find celebrities who are popular among a certain urban population and simply show them exploring green spaces. We have to be careful about which celebrities we reach out to though!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Josh, excellent points (!) and I fully support the solutions you put forward. This discussion does however provide, I think, for a sober view I think of the challenges involved. I’m not involved on the social media side of things and since “everything” happens there (nowadays) it’s difficult to know whether anything outside of it has an impact any more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually think of social media as a neutral medium: one whose impacts depend on how it’s used. True, many people spend far too much time on it. But I also think it can be used to encourage people to get outside; as long as we can find influential spokespeople.

      Also, in my area I’ve seen a dramatic (almost worryingly so) increase in the amount of people exploring the local Parks: from a diverse range of demographics. I also remember hearing that national park attendance is on the rise in the US, although I can’t recall the source. So I think we can still get more people to spend time exploring the outdoors, if we can effectively utilize new communication mediums and remove barriers that make it harder for some people to get out of the city (transportation issues, poverty, lack of group representation in nature-related domains, etc.) It will take effort though!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for the link Jacques! I find it interesting that even though more Americans are acting in ways that are environmentally friendly than before, they also seem to have more negative attitudes towards the environmentalist label. Perhaps we should avoid that term, then, when trying to promote sustainable behaviors. Environmentally-friendly, green, or responsible might have less baggage attached to them.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m afraid all groups have stereotypes, as well as people who oppose them. Unfortunately there have been and still are some very polarizing environmentalists who have not helped the issue very much. That’s why it’s important to try to spend time just listening to our “enemies,” so that we can learn to see each other as individuals: not just representatives of our respective social groups.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. That’s absolutely true! As outsiders looking in, we often perceive members of other groups as being carbon-copies of OUR interpretations of their group prototypes (a fancy word for a social group’s unique customs). This is one of the factors that allow stereotypes and prejudices to thrive, and it prevents us from realizing the humanity and worth of people whom we perceive to be different from ourselves.

          Realizing that not all members of a group agree on all issues is an important step towards breaking down the various stereotypes that most of us (perhaps even all of us) hold. And while it may appear to be unrelated to conservation, each of us has to get past the stereotypes we hold towards different groups in order to create a future in which people from all backgrounds can work together to ensure the health of our ecosystems: and of the people who depend on those ecosystems.

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