The Weekly Read – week 2

Mar 6, 2020 | General

Here’s the second installment of the Weekly Read, our blog which brings you a little bit of social science each week. Continuing last week’s theme of behaviour change, here is a paper which explores why society is slow to respond to the widely acknowledged ecological and climate crises.

Motivating Society-wide Pro-environmental Change

by Thijs Bouman and Linda Steg

One Earth, Volume 1, Issue 1, 20 September 2019, Pages 27-30

This paper explores how societal values may be influencing people’s willingness to change their behaviours to reduce environmental impacts. Bouman and Steg describe a popular explanation for the lack of action – that self-interest is people’s greatest motivator to act, meaning that people mainly act in their own interests rather than in the interests of the environment. To explore this, they present data from 23 countries (n = 44,387) which measures four values:

  • Biospheric: caring for nature and the environment
  • Altruistic: helping people, treating people equally and providing equal opportunities
  • Egoistic: being rich, having money and expensive things
  • Hedonic: having a good time, seeking fun and pleasure

If the narrative that people don’t act for nature because they are too self-interested is true, egoistic and hedonic values would be rated highest. Instead, the opposite is true; in every country measured, biospheric and altruistic values are rated highest (check out Figure 2 in the article to see the full results). Wow. This is the result for all 23 countries. From these results, Bouman and Steg describe the real barrier to behaviour change as being that these values are hidden, that the current narrative causes individuals to underestimate the strength of biospheric and altruistic values in wider society. In other words, people are not expressing the importance they place on caring for nature, the environment and other people for fear of what others will think or say. This links back to the paper in last week’s blog on internal barriers to behaviour change. One of those barriers is social risk – where a person’s perception of how they will be judged – laughed at, ridiculed, for a pro-environmental behaviour prevents them from doing that behaviour. Bouman and Steg’s results suggest that the misconception of wider social values may be inflating the perceived social risks and therefore reducing rates of pro-environmental behaviour.

The authors suggest that widespread endorsement of biospheric and altruistic values could catalyse faster behaviour change. They suggest three key steps to achieve this:

  1. accentuating and communicating existing pro-environmental values which are motivating organisations, businesses and governments to act
  2. ensuring that pro-environmental claims are supported by action. Organisations which claim to hold environmental values but whose actions do not appear to back up that claim will be accused of greenwashing.
  3. finding relatable leaders to engage audiences – i.e. leaders who audiences can identify with, rather than leaders who are too different from themselves.

So why is this paper worth a read?

If you’re a researcher…this is a large-scale, multi-country study which explores an unusual take on societal behaviour change. Exploring values at this scale provides insight into the societal setting in which individuals and organisations operate.

If you work as a practitioner trying to catalyse behaviour change…look at the recommended steps on page 29 and consider what this means for your activities. How can these steps be integrated into your organisation? For example, does your organisation both promote and deliver on biospheric and altruistic values? How can you influence the organisations you work with to do this? Are your communications relatable to your target audiences?

If you want to reduce your own ecological footprint…take heart that you aren’t the only person thinking, caring and acting for the planet. These results show that the values you hold are also widely held across society.

For me, this study feels like a pleasantly positive message, in what is sometimes a sea of challenging literature and practice. Rather than trying to change societal values, communication efforts can be focused on promoting widely held values which are more closely aligned with responding to the ecological and climate crises. To look at the results and see such strong identification of biospheric and altruistic values across 23 countries is surely a reason for optimism.


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