Research Summary

Determinants of young Australians’ environmental actions: the role of responsibility attributions, locus of control, knowledge and attitudes

Community Responsibility and Environmental Awareness Motivate Aussie Youths

Environmental Education Research

Researchers in Australia were alarmed by recent findings that Australian youths exhibited minimal concern for the health of the environment and were largely unmotivated to help solve environmental problems. They postulated that these findings may have been linked with the “bystander effect,” in which youth feel powerless to change large-scale problems because the locus of control is outside of them. In this paper, the researchers examined how Australian youths perceive the locus of control in addressing environmental issues, as well as whether they believe responsibility to address environmental problems lies with the government or their local communities. The researchers examined whether these perceptions are correlated with higher levels of self-reported environmental knowledge, pro-environmental intentions and behavior, and environmentally harmful behavior.

The authors used an online survey to assess 3,731 participating youths aged 12 to 24. They used two sample groups, one consisting of 12- to 17-year-olds in secondary school and the other 18- to 24-year-olds in post-secondary school and in the working world. The 12- to 17-year-olds were recruited via contacting their schools. The 18- to 24-year-olds were recruited via emails acquired from a commercially purchased list of names and through survey links sent through youth, community, and tertiary sector (e.g., university) networks. Sample groups were composed of an even mix of males and females, and all participants lived in the state of Queensland in predominately metropolitan areas. The students in both groups completed the surveys as part of an in-class activity during the final week of their semester, and the non-students (40 percent of the older study group) completed the survey on their own.

The questionnaire measured environmental knowledge and concern by asking how much participants knew about and were concerned with major environmental issues such as climate change. The survey assessed whether youths perceived that the government or their local community was responsible for addressing specific environmental issues. To assess environmental attitudes and behaviors, the survey asked how likely youths would be to undertake certain environmentally friendly activities, such as recycling and conserving water, and how often they perform those activities. Finally, the survey asked how often youths perform a variety of environmentally harmful activities, such as putting recyclable items in the trash, and asked participants to indicate the main barriers that prevented them from engaging in pro-environmental activities.

The authors analyzed the data to search for predictors of environmental behavior. They found that pro-environmental behaviors like recycling and water conservation were positively correlated with a sense that the surrounding community was responsible for taking care of the environment. Additionally, pro-environmental youths were more likely to have more knowledge and concern for the environment, as well as a heightened belief that their actions could make a positive difference. Across both groups, females and older students were more likely to be pro-environmental, and there was a negative correlation across the board between the belief that the government was responsible for solving environmental problems and pro-environmental behavior. In other words, those who believed that solving environmental problems was not the responsibility of the government, but rather the responsibility of individuals, were more likely to undertake pro-environmental behavior. The study found that younger participants overall performed more environmentally harmful behaviors, and that the most common barriers to pro-environmental action include self-reported laziness, perceived lack of time and money, and the belief that individual actions don’t make a difference.

The Bottom Line

The researchers found that, among this population of 12- to 24-year-olds, environmentally friendly behaviors were motivated by the sense that their surrounding community was responsible for taking care of the environment. Pro-environmental behaviors also were associated with heightened concern and knowledge about environmental problems, and youths were likely to become more environmentally friendly as they became older. Environmentally harmful behaviors were reported to stem from laziness, perceived lack of time and money, and the belief that individual actions don’t make a difference. These findings suggest potential strategies for motivating youth involvement that include emphasizing the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to one’s community through pro-environmental actions; an increased focus on building a foundation of environmental awareness in early education; and encouraging easier, less time-consuming pro-environmental actions for youths to overcome barriers of laziness and time constraints.