Environmentally-friendly behaviors typically go unseen; there's no public glory in shortened showers or diligent recycling. But when people can use their behavior to broadcast their own goodness, their incentives shift. The people who buy Priuses and solar panels still probably care about the environment—it’s just that researchers have found that a portion of their motivation might come from a place of self-promotion, much like community service does good and fits on a résumé.
Environmentalists have long wondered about the best ways to influence the behaviors of the masses, and it appears that appealing to people’s selfishness can be a useful strategy. The devilish problem with fighting climate change, from the perspective of the behavioral economist, is that the threat exists too far off in the future. This creates a temporal buffer that makes the cause seem less urgent.
A study in Psychological Science published online last month investigated an interesting way of dissolving that temporal buffer. The authors theorized that people who were forced to think about their own legacies—how they would be seen by future generations—would be more likely to care about protecting the environment. In one experiment, some subjects were asked to write an essay about what they wanted to be remembered for, and another group didn't write an essay. Both groups were later told that they were entered to win a small cash reward and were asked how much of that reward they'd be willing to donate to an environmental charity. The essay-writing group pledged on average 33 percent of their possible reward, while those who didn't dwell on their personal legacy only offered up 23 percent.
Psychological researchers have warned that relying on human selfishness to save the environment is only narrowly useful because it might not affect their behavior in general. Appealing to people's self-image, these researchers caution, might sway them to recycle a plastic bottle once, but it won't compel them to take the subway next time they're given the chance to drive. That may be true, but the benefits of conspicuous conservation shouldn’t be dismissed on those grounds. When it comes to the environment, self-interest is better than no interest at all.
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