Greed Stinks: why using self-interest to motivate environmental change backfires

This bee isn't actually greedy, he just looks like it.

If you go to enough environmental activist group meetings, you are bound to hear, at some point, “What we need is more education”; the assumption being that the general public is too ill-informed to know that their behaviours are causing Issue X (biodiversity loss, climate change, smog, ozone depletion, mountain-top removal, whatever), and that if only they knew better, true and correct behaviours would flow forth naturally from their hands and hearts forevermore.

This is bunk.

It’s interest and passion that drive the need to be well-informed, not vice-versa. Pouring knowledge, statistics and information into the cranium of an otherwise unmotivated person is precisely like pouring boiling water into a candle-mold: it won’t stick, and you’ll get them all steamed up.

More importantly, education does not transform behaviour without a great deal of forethought, planning, audience-targeting, message-crafting and follow-up–and even then, Dear Readers, it’s a tough slog. The general public is already overwhelmed with information that they perceive to be irrelevant to their lives, overly complicated or technical, outside of their control, or too frightening to be entertained. Your educational efforts on Issue X when directed towards someone who is uninterested or frightened will almost certainly go to waste, and may be perceived as harassing or worse.

Environmental psychologists have been puzzling over the interesting quandary of what exactly gets people to adopt pro-environmental behaviours (PEB–I do love good jargon) with increasing alarm over the past several decades. Are you ready? It’s not what you think.

It’s values.

OK, it’s not just values; but values count.

Researchers have divided value systemsinto three broad categories: egoistic (concerned mostly with the self), altruistic (concerned mostly with humanity) and biospheric (concerned with living things generally). Those with biospheric values were the ones most likely to adopt PEB even when it cost them in time or money; those with altruistic values could adopt PEB when they learned about how it affected human beings, and preferably human beings close to home; those with egoistic value systems would only adopt PEB when a specific environmental issue threatened them personally.*

But! Researchers also learned that they could manipulate a person’s value system: for example, by “priming” someone with exposure to nature, either through images or through going to natural settings, a person’s value system notably shifted towards biospheric orientations. Whereas priming someone with a message about how adopting PEB X–let’s say, compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, programmable thermostats and fuel-efficient cars–benefited them, their values shifted towards egoistic and they became less likely to adopt PEB in other areas, where it might cost them.

Your kindergarten teacher was right, and the geniuses in charge of Wall Street are wrong: greed is not good. Sharing is good. Greed is bad. Greed is the end of human civilization: the rampant and uncaring destruction of any ecosystem we personally can’t live in where we can derive temporary and short-term economic benefit by such destruction; the devil-may-care extinction of 50-150 species per day on the basis that we personally can’t miss what we never knew; the theft of a viable future from our grandchildren by wanton disregard for atmospheric physics today; the insatiable modern consumer appetite for stuff over any thing that might actually matter (more on that one next time); greed kills. Those who promote greed as an answer to any significant problem ought to be tarred, feathered, and lit on fire in a public square.

OK, not really (I’m too nice for that–I have a biospheric values orientation). But greed is not the answer. When you appeal to people on the basis of greed, you teach them to be greedy. I’m not claiming that greed has never motivated the development of a system or technology with the capacity to be a solution to our environmental problems; it has. But greed prevents us from adopting those systems and technologies in any useful way by encouraging us to spend our savings instead of saving it, as per the Rebound Effect. The Rebound Effect is greed in action.

Selling pro-environmental behaviours on the basis of perceived self-interest backfires, and it backfires spectacularly. Stop doing it.

If you want to save the world–or, if you’d like to move the general public a little bit closer towards a sustainable society on Issue X–move your audience closer to a biospheric values orientation.** The farther they shift towards caring about living things in a global sense, the more receptive they will be to your educational efforts and the more likely they are to adopt pro-environmental behaviours even when expensive or inconvenient.

Whereas when you sell the public on a pro-environmental behaviour on the basis of self-interest, that is exactly what they will do. And that is all they will do. When it’s easy. When it’s cheap. When it affects them personally. And nothing else.

*

Next up: why modern greed is the biggest shill ever devised, and how shifting towards biospheric values not only opens up space for rainforests, endangered species of frogs and impoverished third-world villages, but for happiness too.

~~~~~

*I’ve posted an annotated bibliography on my favourite papers on this subspecies of environmental psychology for the viewing pleasure of anyone interested in where to go for more information or to track down sources and statistics. Enjoy.

**What that means and how it works is a post for another day, but as a first step: encourage connections and identifications with non-human nature; talk about values–the kind of people we want to be, the kind of world we want to live in, the dreams we have for our children.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Greed Stinks: why using self-interest to motivate environmental change backfires”

  1. I listened to a TED talk on this very thing yesterday — I wish I could remember which one. I was browsing through the podcasts… The guy said (to sum up rather baldly) that the more you appeal to people’s self-interest, the more they act self-interestedly, whereas if you hadn’t even mentioned their self interest, they’d have acted for the good of the whole.

    1. Exactly! The world would be a better place if we stopped underestimating people.

      If you remember which talk it was, let me know. I’d love to hear it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s