Pro-Environmental Behavior: Herd Mentality Motivates, Money Does Not

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There are several ways to influence and persuade people, and the need of the 21st century is to use that to motivate pro-environmental behaviors. Environmental awareness is one part of the solution. The other part is motivating people to adopt behaviors that help conserve, preserve, and sustain the environment. Pro-environmental behavior is behavior that reduces one’s negative impact and/or increases one’s positive impact on the environment.

How can psychologists help in promoting these behaviors? One of the first steps is to figure out what motivates them to successfully implement environmentally-friendly behaviors.

A paper authored by Marie Lisa Kapeller & Georg Jäger[1] suggests that a number of conditions affect pro-environmental behavior. One critical finding is that the amount of information presented to a person about anthropogenic climate change can affect their motivation. Their analysis suggests that the amount of information has to be large enough to sustain desirable behavior. If the quanta of information are low, it will induce anxiety but not enough anxiety to motivate pro-environmental behavior which releases climate-change anxiety.

However, this “exposure” to climate change information is not an isolated factor, it is tied in with anxiety, social influence, group-think, and the positive influence of one climate change believer on a skeptic. Another important condition they point out is the positive role of population-level environmental self-identity. Their findings corroborate extant studies, so let’s backtrack and look at those first.

Robert Cialdini conducted a lot of research on what motivates, persuades, and influences people.

He conducted a field experiment[2] (n=810) in 2008 to find out what motivates and persuades people to incorporate environmentally conscious activities. He and his team focused on 2 questions:

Question 1: What do people say about what incentives they want? 

Assumption: People know what motivates them.

Question 2: What does the behavior of people suggest about their reasons for motivation? 

Assumption: Their behavior may offer new insight into the incentives that work for people.

The research team wanted to learn about the incentives that would motivate people to save electricity by replacing the use of an air conditioner with a fan – a pro-environmental activity. In a phone survey, they offered 4 options and asked them to rate them based on their strength as an incentive.

  1. It saves money (financial incentive, self-interest)
  2. It protects the environment (moral incentive, environmental protection)
  3. It benefits society (social incentive, social responsibility for future generations)
  4. A lot of people are doing it (herd mentality/normative influence)

The results were as follows (ranked in order of strongest to weakest):

  1. Moral incentive
  2. Social incentive
  3. Financial incentive
  4. Herd mentality (normative influence/social influence)

This seems like an intuitive and obvious conclusion. After all, the incentives are for a noble activity – helping the environment. One might wonder – why would some people do such an important activity just because others are doing it or it saves a little money? Displaying an intention to be pro-environmental is globally desirable for the sake of our planet, that should be reason enough.

The researchers took the study a step further by creating different experimental conditions in a field experiment. They decided to drop placards in the houses of a neighborhood encouraging them to do the same: Use fans instead of Air conditioners.

The placards were of 5 types with a special message written on each, and they were randomly distributed in the neighborhood (Incentive type in brackets):

  1. Energy Conservation (Information only control measure)
  2. Join your neighbors in conserving energy (Herd-mentality/Normative validation incentive)
  3. Save money by conserving energy (Financial incentive)
  4. Do your part to conserve energy for future generations (Social incentive)
  5. Protect the environment by conserving energy (Moral incentive)

Each placard had a fact about the incentive like “You can reduce X amount of carbon emissions per year,” for instance.

In this field experiment, the researchers used a person’s behavior as a marker for what motivates them. Trained interviewers followed up with interviews to assess the situation without knowing which placard was given to them. They even followed up on electricity usage to determine how people had changed their behaviors to adopt a pro-environmental message.

With the phone survey, the clear winner was: Moral incentives

With the field experiment, the clear winner was: Herd Mentality (Or Normative Influence)

Normative Social Influence is Underdetected. People may think doing something for the environment is a moral concern but normative influence brings out the biggest behavior change. Click To Tweet

This demonstrates how people believe something about themselves but their behavior speaks otherwise. Asking people to be candid and holding their word as true can be seriously misleading, sometimes without their own knowledge of it.

This observation has grave implications for the collective behavior of humans because the need of the hour is environmental sustenance, repair, and conservation.

According to this study, people can be motivated and persuaded to adopt environmentally conscious lifestyle choices by leveraging normative influence & herd mentality instead of speaking of financial & moral implications. At least, this stance increases the chance of successfully adopting a pro-environment behavior.

Companies, NGOs, and Startups can leverage this insight to motivate people to change their lifestyle in environmentally friendly ways. Remember – people gravely underestimate the influence of social pressure, social influence, social validation, and doing what the norm does on their own behavior. This isn’t necessarily bad because it provides an incredibly valuable mechanism to change public sentiment, environmental awareness, and increase environmentally sustainable behaviors.

Humans function at a herd mentality level even though they believe herd mentality is an inferior incentive. Click To Tweet

Intrinsic motivation & Normative influence on pro-environmental behavior

Environmentally friendly behaviors need motivation

Now that we’ve looked into 1 influential research study, we need to also look at how robust this finding is. Research on the role of national competitions in conserving water and electricity on environmentally friendly behavior[3] shows that social norms (and normative influence) has a stronger influence than financial incentives in sustaining environmentally healthy behaviors. Over 300,000 students across the United States participated in these competitions and their behavior across time demonstrated lasting changes in their pro-conservation tendencies.

A review of 160 studies[4] shows that social influence is a major force that encourages pro-environmental behavior.

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A 2013 study (n=70) takes a different spin[5] on this topic which seamlessly advances Robert Cialdini’s research.

Let us first remind ourselves that, when asked, people reported moral incentives as the main reason why they would adopt environmentally friendly behaviors.

In the newer study, researchers looked at environmental self-identity as a variable in the context of adopting environmentally friendly behaviors. They found that this environmental self-identity can promote pro-environmental behaviors without the need for external incentives. This strongly resonates with the initial finding that people consider moral incentives as the most important influencer in using environmentally conscious behaviors.

The researchers also found that being motivated through a feeling of obligation (people “want to” and feel like they “must do” from within) can promote pro-environmental behaviors. This insight also fits well with Cialdini’s research. Normative/social influence & pressure can power this intrinsic motivation. The researchers highlight that this environmental obligation is a part of one’s environmental self-identity. Humans already have an innate tendency to connect with nature. This tendency can fuel a person’s environmental self-identity.

Some policymakers want people to adopt a pro-environmental “catalyst” behavior such as recycling – which might promote the use of other related pro-environmental behaviors like reducing plastic usage. Research (n=551) shows that intrinsic motivation and environmentally attuned self-identity[6] play a significant role in motivating people to adopt certain types of pro-environmental behaviors, but it isn’t a universal motivator. Opportunities, norms, and planned behavioral initiatives can mediate and influence the successful adoption of pro-environmental behavior.

Another study shows[7] (n=44) that financial incentives are not an effective motivator for eliciting pro-environmental behaviors. When it comes to persuading people to adopt environmentally conscious lifestyles, tapping into their intrinsic motivation[8] is more effective than offering external rewards. It is more useful to appeal to intrinsic goals like well-being and improved health than financial rewards for pro-environmental behavior change.

This brings us to well-supported theories in social psychology – The Cognitive Evaluation Theory[9] and Motivation Crowding Theory[10]. These theories describe and predict that external incentives such as financial rewards can reduce the motivation to demonstrate desired behaviors. External incentives can undermine intrinsic motivation. One relevant mechanism underlying this is that external incentives are perceived as a way of controlling one’s behavior and this threatens the need for autonomy. People tend to trivialize or ignore these incentives to safeguard themselves from being controlled by external factors. A theory of personality and motivation dubbed The Self-Determination Theory[11] also extends this framework. It implies that people tend to address behavior change based on psychological needs and their growth tendencies via 3 channels – autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

In summary, giving people autonomy, a large amount of information, a sense of meaning for proactive environmental activities, and facilitating their competence can be powerful in motivating them to engage in environmentally-friendly activities. Finding some personal alignment with pro-environmental behavior as a community without overtly focusing on external incentives can persuade people to adopt environmentally conscious behaviors. Social influence appears to be the strongest force in encouraging pro-environmental actions.

Disclaimer: This post does not intend to endorse any political point of view or represent any particular stance on environmental policy.

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