Strengthening Values to Change Behavior

There is no question that environmental behavior is related to an individual’s values. ecoAmerica is built around this understanding. But there are different methods for what to do with this understanding. Research recently published in Nature Climate Change explored two camps: 1) emphasize sustainable behavior by connecting to existing “self-enhancing” values or 2) breed new “self-trascendent” values in those that do not already inherently prioritize environmental action. The article makes clear that it is not a matter of choosing one method over another, but the research does indicate that when deciding on a path of action, “there are certain values that must be strengthened and nurtured if meaningful engagement from the public is to be achieved.”

How strengthening people’s altruistic values can help change behaviour
Should sustainability campaigns prime people’s self-transcending values rather than their self-interest? Adam Corner reveals the findings of new research

By Adam Corner

If meaningful engagement on issues such as recycling is to be achieved, certain values must be strengthened and nurtured. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian


Values have taken centre stage over the last year in the realms of politics, finance, business and the media. But values are also at the heart of campaigns to promote sustainable behaviour and have been core to debates on how to effectively communicate climate change (and what individuals, communities and businesses can do about it).

In one camp are those who say that it does not matter which values environmental campaigns target, so long as they are popular with the campaign’s audience. In the other camp are those who point to the evidence from social psychology that shows how certain values tend to be more strongly associated with pro-environmental behaviours.

Typically, individuals who are more altruistic, or who rank ‘self-transcending’ values highly – for example benevolence or respect for the environment – are more likely to engage in sustainable behaviours, whereas people who are more materialistic and ambitious (known as ‘self-enhancing’ values) are more likely to overlook them.

But empirical evidence on which to test campaigners’ competing claims has been scarce. Should climate change be sold using whatever means necessary – emphasising the convenience of sustainable behaviours, appealing to people’s wallets or their social status? Or should environmental campaigns work to strengthen self-transcending values in their audience and the general population, on the basis that this is more important in the long-term?

In research published this week in Nature Climate Change (led by Laurel Evans), we focused on exactly this question, asking whether the reasons given for one sustainable behaviour impact on people’s tendency to engage in another sustainable behaviour – that is, the chance of spillover between one behaviour and another.

Across two experiments with undergraduate students at Cardiff University, we primed groups of participants with different reasons for car-sharing. One group completed a true/false quiz focusing on the money-saving (self-interested) reasons for car-sharing, while another group completed the same quiz with environmental (self-transcendent) reasons as the focus. Two additional groups were included for comparison – one received both types of reasons, the other simply read generic information about travel choices.

Read the full article here.

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