Carpooling to Recycling: Conservation and Self-Interest

Recycling img

There is a well-drummed mantra in conservation that the route to conservation success lies in convincing people that it’s in their best interest to protect the environment.

You have almost certainly all seen this logic in action: the money savings of energy efficiency around the home, the financial benefits companies will reap for environmental stewardship, and even the cost savings countries can expect from taking immediate action on climate change.

In opposition to this logic is much psychological research into social values which suggests that promoting values of self-interest (such as financial gain) reduces people’s willingness to behave in ways that consider the greater good.

This fundamental conflict suggests that even if campaigns focused on self-interest are effective on the target issue, they may, in the long-run, be diminishing our collective will to solve bigger-than-self issues.

Unfortunately, most environmental and humanitarian issues probably fall in this bigger-than-self category.

I blogged about this tension and its implication for conservation in 2010 when WWF-UK and Oxfam released a report focusing on the conflict between self-interested and self-transcendent values.

I’m revisiting it here because a team of researchers led by Laurel Evans have conducted a nice piece of experimental psychology looking precisely at the relationship between self-interest and pro-environmental behaviour.

Does emphasizing the bigger-than-self reasons for a pro-environment behaviour “spill-over” and induce other pro-environment behaviours?

In an experiment published this week in Nature Climate Change, participants were given a task to sketch 2 draft logos of a fictional computer navigation company, during which they were randomly exposed (or “primed” as they say in psychological research) to information either about the emissions reductions benefits or financial benefits from carpooling.

They were asked to discard one of their drafts and hand the other one, and unknowingly given a choice between discarding the paper into a recycling bin or a regular waste bin.

Incredibly, only 15% of those who read about the financial benefits of carpooling chose to recycle their paper, compared to 83% of those who read about the bigger-than-self emissions reduction reason for carpooling.

Yes, this is an experiment (so necessarily simplified) and not a direct test of environmental strategy, but the results should still raise some serious concerns about a great many of our modern conservation strategies.

The upside from Evans and colleague’s results, reinforcing what is outlined in the WWF-UK & Oxfam report, is that information can shift our values and behaviour in a positive way.

(Photo: Recycle these cups. Credit: Flickr user e-magic via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


Posted In: Climate Change, Science

Eddie Game leads conservation planning R&D for the Conservancy’s Central Science team. He is responsible for ensuring that the Conservancy remains a world leader in making science based conservation decisions, can robustly report on our impact, and that we get the greatest return for our conservation investments. Eddie has worked on conservation projects in over 15 countries, helping to apply innovative methods and analyses to projects as diverse as community protected areas in the Solomon Islands, grazing management in northern Kenya, and catchment restoration in Colombia.

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