Why One Climate-Friendly Action Doesn’t Always Lead to Another (and What to Do About It)

blog-compensatory beliefs-3.24.15Rationalization is an all-too-common human behavior. Because we did one good thing (or plan to, at least), we often tell ourselves it’s okay to do something not so good. It all balances out – right? Usually not, unfortunately. As this Washington Post article points out, this type of compensatory thinking tends to backfire. And according to a recent UK study, the tendency towards justification applies to green behaviors as well – for example, a person who drives a hybrid may worry less about leaving the lights on.
Another study, by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (our research partner on our latest communications guide), found that people are prone to a single-action bias, believing that they’ve done their part by doing one thing. So it’s important to help people understand which climate-friendly behaviors have the most impact. But we also need to help people recognize their compensatory beliefs, and understand why that type of logic goes against their desire to be greener.

The Bizarre Way That We Justify Actions That Waste Energy and Are Bad for the Environment

Chris Mooney, Contributor to The Washington Post
Maybe you are familiar with this breed of logic: You’ve just had a really good workout. You ran four miles on the treadmill. So you go home and think to yourself, “I can eat a little more at dinner tonight.” And you do. Heck, you even have dessert.
Or, maybe you’re about to start a new exercise routine — following up on a pledge to yourself, a resolution. But that’s tomorrow. So tonight, you eat way more than you know you should — because after all, you plan to be good in the very near future.
These ideas — the notion that one good health-related behavior justifies or offsets a bad one – are called “compensatory health beliefs” in the research literature. And they appear to be common — and often, pernicious. Studies have linked this mode of thinking to adolescents having a harder time quitting smoking, people being less likely to get a flu shot and, of course, breaking diets.
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Image credit: Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

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