Pride tops guilt as a motivator for environmental decisions

Jon Wallace ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Princeton University research suggests that emphasizing the pride people will feel if they make environmentally conscious decisions is a better way to promote eco-friendly behavior than making people feel guilty for not living more sustainably nor taking steps to ameliorate climate change.

A lot of pro-environmental messages suggest that people will feel guilty if they don’t make an effort to live more sustainably nor take steps to ameliorate climate change. But a recent study from Princeton University finds that emphasizing the pride people will feel if they take such actions may be a better way to change environmental behaviors.

Pro-environmental messaging sometimes emphasizes pride to spur people into action, but it more often focuses on guilt, said co-author and PEI associated faculty Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She and her colleagues wondered which is the better motivator for environmentally conscious behavior. Weber conducted the study — which appeared in the journal PLoS ONE — along with Department of Psychology Ph.D. candidate Claudia Schneider and colleagues at Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Past research has shown that people make decisions partly by anticipating how they will feel afterward — particularly when making decisions that affect others, Weber said. Furthermore, she said, research supports the idea that some people get defensive when they’re told they should feel guilty about something, making them less likely to follow a desired course of action. Thus, guilt-based environmental appeals run the risk of backfiring.

“In simple terms, people tend to avoid taking actions that could result in negative emotions, such as guilt and sadness, and to pursue those that will result in positive states, such as pride and joy,” said Weber, who also is the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment. “Because most appeals for pro-environmental action rely on guilt to motivate their target audience, our findings suggest a rethinking of environmental and climate change messaging” to harness the power of positive emotions such as pride.

Weber and her co-authors asked 987 people — just before they made a series of decisions related to the environment — to think about either the pride they would feel after taking pro-environmental actions or the guilt they would feel for not doing so.

The participants were prompted to think about future pride or guilt by one of three methods. Some were given a one-sentence reminder — which remained at the top of their computer screens as they completed a survey — that their environmental choices might make them either proud or guilty. Others were given five environmentally friendly or unfriendly choice scenarios and asked to consider how making each choice might make them feel proud or guilty. And others were asked to write a brief essay reflecting on their future feelings of pride or guilt over a real upcoming environmental decision. In the end, there were six groups: one for each of the three reflection methods and, within each, one section that considered future pride and another that reflected on future guilt.

Next, the participants were asked to make five sets of choices, each with “green” (environmentally friendly) or “brown” (environmentally unfriendly) options. In one scenario, for example, they could choose a sofa made from environmentally friendly fabric but available only in outdated styles, or they could pick a more modern style of sofa made from fabric produced with harsh chemicals. In another scenario, they could pick any or all of 14 green amenities for an apartment (such as an Energy Star-rated refrigerator), with the caveat that each item added $3 per month to the rent. A control group made the same decisions without being prompted to think about future pride or guilt.

The results revealed a clear pattern across all of the groups. “Overall,” Weber said, “participants who were exposed to anticipation of pride consistently reported higher pro-environmental intentions than those exposed to anticipated guilt.”

The study, “The Influence of Anticipated Pride and Guilt on Pro-Environmental Decision Making,” by Claudia R. Schneider (Columbia), Lisa Zaval (Columbia), Elke U. Weber, and Ezra M. Markowitz (UMass Amherst), was published online Nov. 30, 2017. It was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.