The feel-good factor in acting pro-environmentally
Just think back of the first few hours of today: how long did you shower and how hot was the water? At what temperature did you set the thermostat at home? Did you go to work or classes by bike, bus, or by car? Even in just the first few hours of the day, people make many decisions that have a direct effect on environmental quality. Environmental policies and campaigns often assume that people act as rational, calculating human beings regarding environmental decision-making; just think of the energy-saving campaigns that stress that people can save more money by saving energy. But are people really this rational in their environmental decision-making?
Feelings versus calculations
There are two so-called valuation mechanisms that determine a person’s merit of a certain decision, such as the decision to act pro-environmentally: “valuation by calculation” and “valuation by feeling” (Hsee, Rottenstreich, & Xiao, 2005). “Valuation by calculation” implies that the higher the benefits of a certain option (for instance, in terms of money) are perceived to be, the more people value this option, which drives their decision-making. This valuation mechanism is in line with how many environmental policies and campaigns are currently designed: “more savings are better”, right? In contrast, if “valuation by feeling” guides people’s decision-making, then people’s decisions are mainly guided by how they expect to feel after choosing a certain option.
My dissertation research shows that people’s environmental decisions can be mostly a matter of feelings, and less of calculations: people are more likely to act environmentally-friendly (in these studies measured through people’s intention to save energy) when they believe this will make them feel good (Taufik, Bolderdijk, & Steg, under review). These anticipated positive feelings can guide one’s actions, even more so than people’s cognitive calculations of benefits, such as how much money people believe they can save or their perception of how much CO2-emissions they reduce. Thus, although pro-environmental actions often deliver relatively few savings (Bolderdijk & Steg, 2014), people might still act pro-environmentally as long as they expect to feel good about it. So feelings can be influential in guiding people’s environmental decision-making, but why is this the case?
The moral element of acting green: can it lead to a “warm glow”-feeling?
Because of the moral connotation of pro-environmental behavior, environmental actions can have implications for people’s self-concept (Van der Werff, Steg, & Keizer, 2013) and it has been suggested that environmental actions can therefore make people feel good about themselves (e.g. Bolderdijk et al., 2013). Feeling good as a result of acting morally is also known as feeling a “warm glow”, while feeling bad after failing to act in such a way is known as feeling a “cold prickle” (Andreoni, 1990; 1995). Our studies demonstrate that people’s previous environmental decision-making can in some instances affect their self-concept, which is reflected in how they feel about themselves (Taufik, Bolderdijk, & Steg, 2015; Taufik, Bolderdijk, Steg, & Keizer, under review). The next step was to test when environmental decision-making based on feelings is related to the self-concept.
While “warm glow” and “cold prickle” are metaphoric terms (Andreoni, 1990; 1995), they suggest that people can get warmer of colder feelings as a result of (im)moral actions. Experiencing an outcome as highly rewarding leads to people’s insula becoming activated, leading to an increase in perceived ambient temperature – an indication of a quite literal warm feeling (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2013), a phenomenon which also can occur after making moral decisions (Hsu, Anen, & Quartz, 2008).
“Participants literally experience a warm glow after acting pro-environmentally”
Findings from our research, conducted in both a lab and in a climate-controlled room, showed that people who learned they act relatively environmentally-friendly perceived the room temperature as higher than people who learned they acted relatively environmentally-unfriendly. The research showed that this was because acting environmentally-friendly had positive implications for people’s self-concept: the stronger these positive implications to the self were, the higher one’s temperature perception was (Taufik, Bolderdijk, & Steg, 2015). These findings suggest that the moral element of pro-environmental behavior plays an important role in pro-environmental actions boosting people’s self-concept, which leads to them feeling a quite literal warm-glow in the form of a higher temperature perception.
Environmental campaigns can stress the moral element of pro-environmental behavior, thereby strengthening the impact of pro-environmental actions for the self-concept and led environmental decision-making be guided by feelings. Just think of a poster at a bus stop, which says: “I took the bus to help tackle climate change”. So when attempting to influence people’s environmental decision-making it is important to realize that people do not always make such decisions in a cold, calculating manner. Instead, people can also be driven to act environmentally-friendly by the warm feeling that pro-environmental actions can give them, as a result of the moral element of pro-environmental behavior.
Danny Taufik will defend his dissertation “Can you feel it?” The role of feelings in explaining pro-environmental behavior this Thursday November 19, 14.30 in the Academy Building in Groningen.
Note: Image by Subbotina Anna on Shutterstock
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Andreoni, J. (1995). Warm-glow versus cold-prickle: the effects of positive and negative framing on cooperation in experiments. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 110(1), 1-21.
Bolderdijk, J. W., Steg, L., Geller, E. S., Lehman, P. K., & Postmes, T. (2013). Comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), 413-416.
Bolderdijk, J.W. & Steg, L. (2014). Promoting sustainable consumption: the risks of using financial Incentives. In Thogersen, J. & Reisch, L. (Eds.), Handbook of Research in Sustainable Consumption. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Hsee, C. K., Rottenstreich, Y., & Xiao, Z. (2005). When is more better? On the relationship between magnitude and subjective value. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(5), 234-237.
Hsu, M., Anen, C., & Quartz, S. R. (2008). The right and the good: distributive justice and neural encoding of equity and efficiency. Science, 320(5879), 1092-1095.
Inagaki, T. K., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2013). Shared neural mechanisms underlying social warmth and physical warmth. Psychological Science, 24(11), 2272-2280.
Taufik, D., Bolderdijk, J.W., & Steg, L. (under review). Going green: a matter of calculations or feelings?
Taufik, D., Bolderdijk, J.W., Steg, L., & Keizer, K.E. (under review). “What does this signal about me?” The emotional impact of social comparison feedback.
Taufik, D., Bolderdijk, J.W., & Steg, L. (2015). Acting green elicits a literal warm glow. Nature Climate Change, 5(1), 37-40.