Environmental Psychology 5 - Acting Green

Environmental Psychology elective at Leiden University (2020-2021)

Lecture 5: Acting green - sustainable behavior

Evolutionary perspective:

  • Evolutionary perspective, focusing on:

    • Ultimate vs proximate explanations
    • Stone Age Brain in 21th century world
  • Survival and reproduction
    • Not of individuals but of genes
  • Manifest in 5 “ancestral” tendencies
  • Important to understand, also for effective interventions

Five “ancestral” tendencies:

1. Propensity for self-interest

  • Ensure survival and replication of genes of self and family (inclusive fitness)
  • Reciprocal altruism (in small, stable, interdependent groups)

2. Desire for relative status

  • Costly signaling: spending --> resourceful -->attraction
  • Competitive altruism/environmentalism: sacrificing  increases status (visibility important) --> attraction

Example of status and self-interest: desire to plant trees is increased when name tag (of person who planted) is placed on the tree

Paradox of green to be seen by Van der Wal, Van Horen, and Grinstein (2016):

  • Public signaling: Shopping at Ekoplaza vs. Marqt
  • Ekoplaza (intrinsic motivation: environment)
  • Marqt (extrinsic motivation: status)
  • Finding: much more people bought Marqt bag than Ekoplaza bag

3. Unconsciously copying the behavior of others

  • Adaptive value in the many situations where trial and error is too costly
  • Effective for change when majority is seen to go along
  • Humans are disposed to imitate those who are perceived as leaders

Social norms and hotel towels by Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008)

What has more affect on peopoles' behavior when it comes to reusing a towel?

  • INDUSTRY STANDARD: "HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay."
  • SOCIAL NORM: JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of the guests help the environment by reusing their towels. Help save the environment by reusing your towels yourself during your stay.

  • The "social norm" message was much more effective'

4. Following the present over the future

  • Temporal discounting: people in general discount the future. So, emphasis should be on direct benefit

5. Disregarding impalpable concerns

  • Difficult to appreciate environmental problems when there are no clear sensory (visual, audible, olfactory) cues. E.g.: problems that are not appearant in your immesdiate environment seem less important

Factors that influence behavior

  • Information: beliefs, attitudes, values
  • Behavior of others : normative pressure
  • Financial regulation, legislation, physical change: change in beliefs about behavioral outcomes

Theory of Planned Behavior:Theory in which attitudinal, normative and control beliefs are modeled to predict behavior

  • Illustration of Planned Behavior model: http://www.people.umass.edu/aizen
  • Lacking in Planned Behavior model: personal norm
    • Feeling of personal obligation to perform behavior based on internalized values
    • Strong additional predictor for environmental behavior
    • Derived from research on altruism, helping
  • Adding personal norm: Schwarz’s Norm-Activation Theory (1977):

    4 activators  

1. Awareness of need

2. Responsibility              ------> Personal norm -------> Evaluation ------->Behavior

3. Effective action              

4. Ability

De Leeuw, A., Valois, P., Ajzen, I., & Schmidt, P., 2015. Using the theory of planned behavior to identify key beliefs underlying pro-environmental behavior in high-school students: Implications for educational interventions.

A longitudinal study showing the value of the Theory of Planned Behavior in predicting sustainable behavior

Making an important distinction between the injunctive norm and descriptive norm

Broadening the basic model by two important background factors

  • Gender: previous research females > males
  • Empathic concerns


  • Theory of Planned Behavior supported

    • Attitude, descriptive social norm and perceived behavioral control predict sustainable behavior
  • Influence of what peers do more important than own attitude
  • No sex difference found
    • Due to age and education?
  • Empathic concern strengthens the sustainable normative beliefs and behavioral beliefs
    • Showing the social dimension of sustainable behavior

Schultz, P. W., & Zelezny, L. C., 1998. Values and proenvironmental behavior: A five-country survey

Environmental behavior across countries
Importance of values
Relation between values and the norm-activation model
National differences found in the study:
  • Recycling: USA > Mexico/Spain > Peru > Nicaragua
  • Public transportation: Nicaragua/Spain/Peru > Mexico > USA
  • Conserve water: Peru/Mexico > USA
  • Purchasing environmentally safe products: Spain > USA
  • Conserve energy: no differences found

Values and sustainable behavior:

Self-transcendence (universalism) positively rated for pro-environmental behavior (+)
Self-transcendence (benevolence): USA +
Conservation: USA negatively related to pro-environmental behavior (-)
Self-enhancement: Nicaragua/USA/Spain/Mexico -
Openness: Mexico/USA/Peru +
  • Countries do differ in the way sustainable behavior is displayed by its citizens
  • Self-transcendence and openness are good predictors of sustainable behavior
  • Self-enhancement is a good predictor of non-sustainable behavior
  • Awareness of consequences and ascribed responsibility predict sustainable behavior
    • Enhances the relation between self-transcendence and sustainable behavior

Thögersen and Ölander, 2006. The dynamic interaction of personal norms and environment-friendly buying behavior: A panel study.

Study interesting for its longitudinal design and causal modelling analyses and outcomes
Research Questions:
  • Who buys organic food?

    • Which is expensive, has poor distribution, sometimes has lower quality, and buying which does not belong to routine pattern of consumer behavior
  • And who continues to do so after a trial experience?


  • Personal norm is the strongest predictor of buying organic food
  • Expensiveness defers people from buying organic food

Gifford, R., 2013. Dragons, mules, and honeybees: Barriers, carriers, and unwitting enablers of climate change action.

Dragons of inaction:
  • Limited cognition: discounting time and place bound risk, plain ignorance, habituation, uncertainty
  • Ideologies: religious, technological, free market
  • Other people: anti-environmental examples create norm
  • Sunk costs: e.g., car ownership, habits in general
  • Disbelief, distrust, denial
  • Risks: a manifold (functional, physical, financial, social, psychological, temporal)
  • Limited behavior (symbolic behavior, rebound effects)


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