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).
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?
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).
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.
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.