Guardian Environment website
For most people, there is nothing quite as interesting as other people. We are incredibly well attuned to what others are doing and thinking – especially if they might be thinking about us. The choices we make speak volumes about our likes, our hates, our personalities and our social status. New research published yesterday suggests that our environmental choices are no different. Over and above the financial or environmental benefits of making low-carbon choices, we value the boost in social status this can provide – what's important is that we are seen to be going green.
Across three studies, Vladas Griskevicius and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota examined the conditions under which people selected the "green" option when provided with a choice between a regular and environmentally beneficial product. Some participants read a story about social status and "moving up in the world" before making their choice. Displaying a phenomenon known as "competitive altruism", these people opted to "self-sacrifice" and chose the environmentally friendly product, even though it was of inferior quality.
The authors of the study argued that what these participants lost in product functionality, they gained in social status. Voluntarily engaging in altruistic behaviour sends a powerful signal that you are caring and compassionate enough to take a hit for the team – and that you have the resources to act pro-socially. Previous research has shown that we take our cues for what is "normal" from those around us, and it seems that we're even prepared to "self-sacrifice" to boost our social standing. Combine these two findings and you have a powerful tool for promoting pro-environmental behaviour. As the long decarbonisation of the transport system begins, will people start competing over the efficiency rather than the acceleration of their cars?
Interestingly, participants in the study only displayed competitive altruism when they thought that others would be made aware of their choice – or when the green products were highly priced (signalling high status wealth). Coupled with the recent finding that individuals in an experiment who bought green goodies subsequently displayed more selfish behaviour, does this undermine the seemingly selfless nature of altruistic, pro-environmental behaviour?
The study certainly provides a window on the psychological basis of greenwash. When people make a consumer decision they buy into the idea of the product as much as the product itself. Unfortunately, the "idea" of sustainability can be a remarkably effective way of shifting patently unsustainable goods, and left to their own devices, people will compete to outdo each other on whatever criteria happen to be around. Flying to an eco-trek in Peru? I'll take two please.
Confronted with a problem like climate change, our consumption-based economy responds in the only way it knows how – by selling sustainability like it sells soap. But while a desire to be "seen to be green" clearly leaves us vulnerable to the dubious motives of commercial marketing campaigns (not to mention some ribbing down the pub), harnessing the primal urge for social status is critical for promoting pro-environmental behaviours that are more substance than spin. We may currently compete through demonstrations of conspicuous material consumption, but material goods are simply a marker for social status. It's the social status that's important – and the markers we use to signify it can easily change.
Griskevicius and his colleagues suggest that visible signs, tags and badges are an important aid for signalling to others that a particular behaviour is not just common, but desirable. Several studies in America have found that rates of recycling were boosted when householders were asked to make a public commitment to recycle, rather than just get on with it quietly.
But paying attention to the social aspects of how and why people take action to protect the environment goes far deeper than displaying a pro-recycling window sticker. Many environmental messages focus on what others should be doing, but time might be better spent setting a positive example and letting the social status that comes with altruistic behaviour do the hard work.
No one likes to be told what to do, but few of us can resist the temptation to get one over on the Joneses. And if what the Joneses are doing happens to be good for the environment, then being green to be seen might not be such a bad thing after all.
Photo by Michael Meiklejohn