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Are you pro-environment? Perhaps not as much as you think, shows study

Read time: 4 mins
12 May 2020
Are you pro-environment? Perhaps not as much as you think, shows study

Being "environment friendly" or "eco-friendly" is the 'in thing' today. Aiming a zero-waste or vegan or carbon-neutral lifestyle are now trendy. The recent climate strikes and the declaration of a 'climate emergency' have raised awareness on environmental issues, motivating behavioural change in people towards sustainable lifestyles. However, do people tend to perceive themselves as better than others in living such a planet-friendly life? Yes, says a study by researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Published in the journal Basic and Applied Psychology, the study shows that people tend to think of themselves as being better than the average population in being pro-environmental.

"There is no empirical study that I know of that tests if the 'self-serving bias' is making people overestimate their pro-environmental engagement", quotes Dr Magnus Bergquist, the corresponding author of the study.

The study aimed to examine if self-serving biases also act as a barrier for undertaking pro-environmental behaviours.

A self- serving bias, also called "better than average effect" (BTAE), is an idea in psychology where people tend to associate themselves with being superior or 'positive' than others.

"There are various forms of self-serving biases. There is the optimism bias, defined as when people's expectations are greater than the objective outcomes", explains Dr Bergquist. 

The researchers hypothesised that most people would perceive themselves as more pro-environmental than the others and to test this, they conducted a series of experiments in three phases. In the first phase, they recruited participants from Sweden for an online survey to check whether the BTAE influenced them in evaluating their pro-environmental behaviour. The participants were asked about comparing their actions with others in Sweden. The results showed that about half of the participants perceived themselves to be more pro-environmental than others. 

In the next phases, the researchers evaluated BTAE of pro-environmental behaviours in three countries – India, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Here too, the participants took part in online tasks and ranked themselves on a set of predefined environmental behaviours such as buying products with a green mark, turning the faucet off when brushing teeth, taking their own bag for shopping, turning off the lights when leaving a room, switching off air conditioner frequently and so on.

The results showed that the percentage of people rating their pro-environmental engagement as high as 75.3%. India ranked the highest in self-serving bias at 85.7%, followed by the United Kingdom (72%) and the United States (63.7%). Interestingly, the five most commonly reported pro-environmental behaviours in India were to plant a tree, reduce or avoid plastics, avoid littering, take sustainable transportation, and conserve water.

As the last step, the study also investigated whether there is a reduction in people's engagement with future pro-environmental activities due to the self-serving bias. It was observed that BTAE had a weak effect on the intentions of people to engage in future pro-environment behaviour. Thus, the hypothesis that self-serving biases inhibit future pro-environmental actions is weakly supported.

Self-serving biases are known to cause people to use positive information more than negative information while adding to their knowledge. For example, people expect their pro-environmental actions, like avoiding the use of plastics, to significantly reduce plastic pollution, while underestimating the effects on a global scale. Previous research has also shown that sceptics about climate change choose "good news" over "bad news". For example, climate change sceptics will change their beliefs in response to unexpected news like 'an increase in average temperature is likely to be less than thought'. On the other hand, those who believe in climate change will change their beliefs in response to 'bad' news, like 'an increase in average temperature is more likely to happen than expected'.

Being aware of the BTAE will help individuals recognise their skewed pro-environmental behaviour and avoid over-rating their actions to fight climate change. Psychological studies like this help to shape responses to climate change and to design international policies on climate change.