Science - May 15, 2014

‘Pride stimulates sustainable choices’

Rob Ramaker

Playing on feelings of pride or guilt motivates people to adopt sustain­able behaviour, shows Marleen Onwezen in the thesis she defended on Friday 2 May.

How do pride and guilt feelings influence our behaviour?

‘We know that many people have a positive attitude to the environment. Nevertheless, they do not always make environmentally friendly choices when they have to decide between a standard and an ecofriendly product. Convenience and price play a role too. So there is a gap between our norms and our intentions. We have now shown that emotions, especially pride but guilt feelings as well, help us to convert our norms into intentions. When you throw a piece of paper onto the street, for instance, you evaluate the ac­tion according to your environmental norms. This can make you feel guilty and influence your future decisions.’

In your experiments, behaviour even seems to change when people only expect to feel guilty or pride later.

‘Anticipated emotions have even more influence on intentions than experienced emotions. We think this is because people over­estimate their emotions. They expect to be prouder when they do something good than they are in practice. Beforehand people focus strongly on possible events, but they forget how distracted you often are as you make day-to-day ­decisions.’

How can you apply all this knowledge in practice?

‘That is not exactly what we did research on, but let us speculate. Instead of interventions aiming to transmit knowledge, we could focus on emotions. For example, by placing a reminder near the shelf which makes people ask themselves: does this meet my standards? Of you could give people a sense of pride by introducing an element of competition. Showing people from particular streets how they are doing in environmental terms compared with people from other streets, cities or countries.’

Of course you will never convince someone who doesn’t care about sustainability.
‘No, you could certainly see it as going for easy targets. It is a way of actually spurring on people who are already positive about the environment.’