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Conservation behavior can be approached from either an observer’s or an actor’s viewpoint. When behavior is defined from the outside by its face value, even seemingly similar behaviors such as glass, paper, and battery recycling fall into distinct categories. When behavior is defined from the inside as a goal-directed performance, even diverse acts such as recycling and ownership of solar panels appear to belong to one class of actions. Correspondingly, there are two distinct research traditions that differ substantially.
- Conceptions of Conservation Behavior
- Performance and Consequences
- Shaping Performance
1. Conceptions Of Conservation Behavior
The impact of individuals’ actions on the natural environment has led to ecological transformations of yet unknown gravity. Psychological analyses of environmental problems have focused on effectively promoting more ecologically sustainable patterns and courses of action such as recycling, choice of transportation, and energy conservation. According to a recent Journal of Social Issues research paper by Stern, behaviors such as these, like other human performances, can be approached from two different angles: from an observer’s viewpoint, when behavior is defined by its face value (which is evident in its consequences), and from an actor’s subjective viewpoint, when behavior is defined as a motivated or goal-directed performance, namely, as the behavioral means by which people try to achieve a particular goal. Based on these two conceptions of behavior, there are two distinct research traditions that differ substantially in their behavior typology and measurement approach, in the ways in which they link behavior to its environmental consequences, and in the ways in which they tackle behavior change.
1.1. Face Value Action: A Multitude of Behavior Types
As a person drives to the grocery store, to the kindergarten, or to work, he or she is using a car that consumes fossil fuel and pollutes the air. In general, the environmental consequences—air pollution and resource consumption—are the basis for classifying a behavior as conservational or, in this case, nonconservational or environmentally harmful. An example of this view is Axelrod and Lehman’s definition that categorizes ‘‘actions which contribute towards environmental preservation and/or conservation’’ as being conservational. Strictly speaking, however, all behaviors have environmental consequences given that every behavior uses the physical environment in which it takes place. Taking a leisurely walk down the sidewalk, for instance, involves breathing air and rubbing off microscopic pieces of concrete and rubber. Because behavior is generally consumptive, it is the relative extent and the particular quality of the environmental consumption that matter in this face value conception of conservation behavior.
When behavior is defined by its face value as it normally is, measurement is traditionally based on factor analysis, varimax rotation, and the true score (measurement) model. In this tradition, even seemingly similar behaviors such as glass, paper, and battery recycling are commonly found to fall into distinct and independent categories of conservation behavior. In turn, psychological research has focused on rather specific behaviors, such as environmental activism, consumerism, and energy conservation, with a dominant preference for recycling behavior, as was pointed out by Vining and Ebreo. Studying behavior rather particularly, however, ultimately means that modification programs have to be specifically tailored to each type of conservation behavior.
1.2. Goal-Directed Action: One Class of Behavioral Means
Even when a behavior has environmentally harmful consequences, the individual might not necessarily intend to cause damage. At most, the individual accepts harm as a side effect of a particular performance. Thus, from a motivational viewpoint, air pollution and resource consumption often are irrelevant. For example, by taking the car to the grocery store, to the kindergarten, or to work, a person tries to increase his or her comfort level or to decrease transit time. The environmental consequences of the action are by and large ignored. However, if the person’s intent is not to pollute the air or use fuel but rather to easily transport groceries home or give his or her child a safe ride, we cannot expect environmental values and attitudes to be the essential internal drives that determine car use. Instead, child-rearing and convenience-related considerations are presumably more crucial. Obviously, it is not a behavior’s apparent face value that matters from a motivational viewpoint; rather, it is the personal reason, that is, the subjective goal or purpose that accompanies the act. By this logic, behavior cannot be meaningfully defined by its face value (i.e., by its obvious consequences); instead, it must be defined by its underlying motive (i.e., the goal for which a behavior is a means to an end).
When behavior is defined from a motivational viewpoint as a goal-directed performance (i.e., as the behavioral means necessary to achieve the conservation goal), research has unanimously found even seemingly diverse acts such as glass recycling and ownership of private solar panels to belong to one class of actions (based on the Rasch model within item response theory).
According to Kaiser and Wilson’s model, a person’s dedication to a conservation goal is most obvious in the face of increasingly demanding hurdles and progressively intolerable sacrifices. Similarly, the more obstacles a person overcomes and the more effort he or she expends along the way to the goal, the more evident that person’s commitment is to the particular cause. Likewise, if the tiniest difficulty is enough to stop a person from taking the goal-implied behavioral steps, devotion to this goal likely is rather low. In other words, the more demanding the behavioral tasks, the greater the commitment to achieving the goal implied by the performances (and vice versa).
In this second research tradition, measurement of conservation behavior essentially takes on the format of a performance test. Thus, motivationally relevant goal-directed behavior cannot be identified by the inspection of single acts. It can be measured only when several performances—all of which are necessary to achieve a particular goal—are considered and when each behavior can be characterized by the personal effort (i.e., the behavioral costs) involved in its realization. These costs are determined by the sociocultural boundary conditions (e.g., terrain, climate, customs, legal regulations, economy, societal infrastructure) in which an act takes place.
2. Performance And Consequences
Regardless of whether one favors a consequences or a goal-based conception of behavior in the conservation domain, it is the environmental impact that matters rather than conduct per se. Thus, psychology’s ultimate aspiration must be to reduce people’s ecological footprints in terms of pollution and energy and other resources consumed.
2.1. A Primary Focus on Consequences
In a recent American Psychologist research paper, Stern advised psychologists to justify their choice of behavior to study by its relative contribution to environmental preservation. In contrast, others decide to skip behavior entirely and to aim directly at predicting environmental consequences such as the amount of energy or water people consume. The former strategy generally diminishes psychology’s significance by encouraging comparison of the impact of individual behavior with that of commercial sectors or industry. Individual households account for only approximately one-third of energy use and for only approximately 5% of solid waste. Such a focus necessarily points to the relative irrelevance of people’s motives, values, and beliefs and ultimately to the relative insignificance of psychology.
Research that directly addresses the consequences rather than individual performances typically finds the boundary conditions of an act—the technology that is used, product price, and household size—to be by far the most significant determinants in affecting a person’s ecological footprint. For example, regardless of any motivational differences, people consume relatively more energy for heating during the winter than during the summer. Thus, despite the fact that the absolute quantity might be decreased with an extremely conservational attitude compared with a more mundane position, the outside temperature will generally dominate the absolute amount of energy that is consumed. This relative supremacy of the external conditions is especially striking for the most environmentally crucial actions, that is, the expensive and/or high-effort performances such as retrofitting homes and purchasing energy-efficient cars.
2.2. A Deficient Relationship
Focusing on the environmental impact of people’s actions obviously takes the face value definition of behavior to its extreme. However, with shared variances of 5 to 15%, the link between conservation behavior and its environmental impact is far from perfect. This finding also explains the diverse results of research based on the two discrepant criteria: behavior and its consequences. Concomitantly, if acting does not have the desired outcome, we can also conclude that people lack knowledge about the actual environmental consequences of what they themselves call conservation behavior. In other words, people may know about the general class of actions that contribute to environmental conservation and/or preservation, but at the same time they might remain ignorant of the relative environmental effectiveness of different behaviors. Logically, consequences are an unreasonable substitute for behavior.
2.3. No Goal, No Drive
Focusing too closely on the consequences ignores the actor’s perspective in two essential ways. First, there are myriad environmental consequences that people should or could take into account—energy savings, biodiversity-relevant effects, greenhouse gases, and various air, soil, or water pollutants—all of which are worthwhile to consider but are far too numerous to reflect on altogether concurrently and constantly. Second, if a certain amount of energy to be saved is the ultimate goal, an actor needs to know about the quantitative conservation effects of the various behavioral alternatives. For instance, what saves how much or relatively more energy: purchasing a fuel-efficient car or driving less? Without such knowledge, we cannot expect people to form a corresponding quantitative performance goal, and without an individual goal, there is no motive for a person to strive for it either. In other words, we cannot expect subjective reasons to be significant for a goal that does not exist. In summary, a focus on the environmental consequences makes it unlikely to find psychological determinants to be notable, and if we wish to assess psychology’s factual significance in contributing to environmental conservation, psychologists must pay attention to behavior.
3. Shaping Performance
Despite environmentalists’ and environmental scientists’ arguments to the contrary, various conservation behaviors seem to fall into one mental category for a majority of people. This implies that various people who wish to act in a conservational way do not necessarily take on the same behavioral tasks to achieve their conservation goals. Whereas one person rides a bike to work, another person uses a car for daily commuting but compensates by avoiding the use of batteries. Whereas one person perceives his or her contribution to environmental preservation by switching to a vegetarian diet, another person sees some irregular recycling of bottles as his or her part. This explains why people excuse their unecological behavior by pointing to their conservational engagement. For example, an intercontinental holiday flight can subjectively be compensated by regularly buying seasonal produce, recycling, and so forth. According to Thøgersen, this interchangeability of various conservation behaviors, from a subjective viewpoint, has not received much attention yet.
3.1. Multiple Behaviors, Determinants, and Complex Interventions
When behavior is defined by its face value as it normally is, conservation behaviors are found to fall into distinct mental categories. However, if avoiding household chemicals and energy conservation are unrelated, substituting one with the other is unreasonable. Not surprisingly, various behaviors have different determinants. And predictably, an integrated theory of the antecedents of conservation behavior has become a remote goal as well. What psychologists normally find is a multitude of influences differentially significant with various behaviors. And as it turns out, with many specific behaviors, the sociocultural boundary conditions result in the most striking effects. In terms of effect size, sociocultural boundary conditions are clearly more prominent than environmental motives, attitudes, and values, and sociocultural boundary conditions often are even more pronounced than the numerous psychological factors combined. Axiomatically, the more powerful the external conditions are, the less influential the internal ones will be.
In line with Stern in his American Psychologist research paper, conservation psychologists infer that the presence of the appropriate psychological condition, such as the right attitude, explains behavior only when there are relatively insignificant external barriers present—and even then, to a modest degree at best. Predictably, increasing sociocultural opportunities or removing such barriers to performing conservation behaviors often achieves the most powerful effects, especially when the conditions are demanding.
The psychological measures and strategies that are thought to be effective in this line of research are complex because they need to incorporate the fact that people are diverse, live under a variety of different circumstances, and respond to various interventions differentially. In contrast, intervention strategies that consist of single measures, such as a particular persuasion technique that aims at changing people’s environmental attitude, often fail to have the desired behavioral consequences. However, the more sophisticated interventions become, the less efficient they are and the more time, effort, and money that are needed to develop and employ them— and, consequently, the less appealing they are for policymakers to widely promote behavior change.
3.2. Differentially Striving for a Single Goal
Because people can do different things to strive for a conservation goal, they can normally choose among various behavioral alternatives. Correspondingly, we cannot deterministically predict future behaviors; that is, we cannot foresee whether people will limit their leisure time mobility, recycle glass, or retrofit their houses. All we can safely expect is a prudent selection of the behavioral means to achieve the goal. Because any behavior being performed requires personal resources such as time, money, and effort, we can anticipate that if two behaviors seem equally suited to achieve an objective, people will favor the relatively less demanding action over the more challenging one. Hence, if a conservation goal can be accomplished with a variety of different acts, people will most likely go with the less strenuous or less costly one.
Moreover, we can also predict that a person will engage in an act only if his or her motivation to achieve the conservation goal exceeds, or at least matches, the behavioral costs involved in its realization. In other words, the more central the conservation goal is to the person’s life, the more demanding the behavioral tasks the person takes on. Predictably, Kaiser and colleagues repeatedly found that people’s motivation (i.e., their intention to achieve a conservation goal) almost perfectly reflected in their goal-directed performances.
Behavior interventions, such as improving environmental motivation, generally leave people with a choice. Because the conservation goal can be accomplished with a variety of different acts, people can engage in several activities. They can buy energy-efficient light bulbs, recycle paper, refrain from using a dryer for their laundry, purchase solar panels for their own energy supply, boycott companies with poor conservation reputations, contribute to environmental organizations, and so on. Logically, because psychological measures always aim at the entire range of behavioral means, researchers cannot confirm successful behavior changes when they opt for specific and narrow performance criteria. In other words, the neglect of alternative behavioral means by which people can strive for the conservation goal makes it likely that researchers underestimate the effectiveness of psychological interventions.
Focusing on the entire range of the behavioral means implies that researchers’ attention ultimately shifts away from single environmental consequences, such as the amount of heating energy or certain carbon dioxide emissions, and moves toward a person’s overall environmental effect. Necessarily, with a goal-directed behavior perspective, psychology addresses the person’s entire ecological footprint as well.
- Axelrod, L. J., & Lehman, D. R. (1993). Responding to environmental concern: What factors guide individual action? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 13, 149–159.
- Becker, L. J., Seligman, C., Fazio, R. H., & Darley, J. M. (1981). Relating attitudes to residential energy use. Environment & Behavior, 13, 590–609.
- Gatersleben, B., Steg, L., & Vlek, C. (2002). Measurement and determinants of environmentally significant consumer behavior. Environment & Behavior, 34, 335–365.
- Kaiser, F. G., & Wilson, M. (2004). Goal-directed conservation behavior: The specific composition of a general performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 36, 1531–1544.
- McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2000). Fostering sustainable behavior through community-based social marketing. American Psychologist, 55, 531–537.
- Stern, P. C. (2000a). Psychology and the science of human–environment interactions. American Psychologist, 55, 523–530.
- Stern, P. C. (2000b). Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 407–424.
- Tanner, C., Kaiser, F. G., & Wo¨ lfing Kast, S. (2004). Contextual conditions of ecological consumerism: A food-purchasing survey. Environment & Behavior, 36, 94–111.
- Thøgersen, J. (1999). Spillover processes in the development of a sustainable consumption pattern. Journal of Economic Psychology, 20, 53–81.
- Vining, J., & Ebreo, A. (2002). Emerging theoretical and methodological perspectives on conservation behavior. In R. B. Bechtel, & A. Churchman (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology (pp. 541–558). New York: John Wiley.
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