There’s a view that to get people to make better environmental decisions they must be shown financial benefits. Whether through incentives or government rebates, policymakers often “bribe” individuals into making better choices.

New research from Europe, however, shows that this may be a less effective way of encouraging people to make better environmental choices. Reminding people of their previous environmentally-friendly actions may improve green behaviour.

One EU study looking into whether information campaigns about energy use reduce consumption found that overall, this type of campaign was effective and participants reduced their energy use by an average of 7.4 per cent. The research also showed that when individuals are informed about their own energy use and given advice on how to lower their consumption, they reduced it on average by 13.5 per cent. Furthermore, when provided with comparisons with their peers’ energy use; consumption was reduced by 11.5 per cent.

Interestingly, this same study also found that strategies that provided information on money savings or monetary incentives actually resulted in, on average, an increase in energy use by participants.

“People like to feel good about themselves and good about what they do,” said Rupert Posner, CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia. “And if they do, they are more likely to do it again.”

“This isn’t to say that government rebates aren’t useful to improve environmental actions. It is just that it’s likely that they are important affirmations that the action is good, as well as providing a financial incentive.”

In another study carried out in Europe, researchers found that green behaviour is encouraged through strengthened environmental self-identity. The researchers noted this tendency toward using financial incentives but recognised that people often carry out environmentally-friendly behaviour even when they do not stand to gain anything. The researchers proposed that if an individual simply thinks of themselves as pro-environment, they will be more inspired to act accordingly.

To carry out this research, three surveys were conducted. In the first, which was conducted online, 138 Dutch participants were asked how strongly they agreed with statements such as ‘I see myself as an environmentally-friendly person,’ which indicated whether they had a strong environmental self-identity.

The survey then determined whether they felt any moral obligation to perform green behaviours by asking them whether they agreed with statements such as ‘I would feel guilty if I did not act in an environmentally-friendly manner.’ Lastly, they were asked about the likelihood that they would use green energy in the next year.

The results showed that those who already regarded themselves as environmentally-friendly individuals were also more likely to feel a moral obligation and were therefore more likely to indicate that they would use green energy.

The second survey, which had 45 participants, built on the first by adding questions which added a moral component through statements such as ‘I feel morally obliged to buy sustainable products’ and by asking respondents to choose between two products; one of which was sustainable but also 20 per cent more expensive than the other, non-sustainable, option.

The results of the second survey suggested that strong feelings of specific moral obligation and preference for environmentally-friendly products were also closely related to environmental self-identity.

The third survey aimed to understand whether environmental self-identity was truly causing, rather than just correlated with, environmentally-friendly behaviour. To do this, the researchers reminded a third set of participants of times when they had performed environmentally-friendly actions, strengthening their environmental self-identity. They achieved this by asking participants how often they performed very common environmentally-friendly actions such as recycling waste paper. A third of the group was asked how often they performed uncommon environmentally-friendly actions, such as showering for only a very short time, and the final third was asked about an unrelated activity, for example, reading the newspaper.

The results of this indicated that those in the first third reported a stronger environmental self-identify after having being reminded of things they do that are eco-friendly, and subsequently felt more morally obliged to perform green behaviours.

These studies show that self-identifying with environmental actions may be instrumental in motivating green behaviour. Perhaps instead of running campaigns centred on financial savings, policymakers should consider developing campaigns that remind individuals of previous pro-environmental behaviour and work to affirm the individual’s sense of moral obligation to the environment.

By: Alex Longstaff