Study: Pride Motivates Better Than Guilt for Green Choices


A little shaming might seem like a good idea when you see someone skip the recycle bin and head straight for the trash, but you might want to reconsider that approach. A recent study from Princeton University finds that highlighting the pride people will feel if they take environmentally friendly actions may be a better way to change behavior.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, “The Influence of Anticipated Pride and Guilt on Pro-Environmental Decision Making” asked people from a sample of nearly 1,000 diverse participants to think about either the pride they would feel after taking pro-environmental actions or the guilt they would feel for not doing so, just before making a series of decisions related to the environment. There were various ways to remind them of the pride or guilt they might feel, including a one-sentence reminder that remained at the top of the screen for some participants.

To look at what’s a better motivator, the respondents were asked to make five sets of choices, each with “green” (environmentally friendly) or “brown” (environmentally unfriendly) options. In one scenario, they could choose a sofa made from eco-friendly fabric but available only in outdated styles, or they could pick a more modern style of sofa made from fabric produced with harsh chemicals.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 example, they could pick any or all of 14 green amenities for an apartment, with the caveat that each one added $3 per month to the rent.

Across all the groups — those being reminded to feel pride for making eco-choices, those being reminded to feel guilt for non-eco-choices, and a control group — a pattern emerged. “Overall, participants who were exposed to anticipation of pride consistently reported higher pro-environmental intentions than those exposed to anticipated guilt,” said study author Elke U. Weber.

Why? Some people get defensive when they’re told they should feel guilty about something, which makes them less likely to want to comply with the requested course of action. Those well-intentioned but guilt-based environmental appeals may very well backfire.

So instead of warning people that they’re hastening climate change that will ruin the earth for generations to come, try patting them on the back when you see them make a good decision. Mother Earth will thank you for your kinder, gentler approach.

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