Research Summary

The role of perceived socio-spatial distance in adolescents' willingness to engage in pro-environmental behavior

Willingness to Engage in Local Versus Distant Environmental Issues

Journal of Environmental Psychology

One characteristic of all major current environmental threats is the interconnection of local and global issues. What occurs locally has global implications, and vice versa. This is true for greenhouse gas emissions, as well as for issues such as ocean pollution, overfishing, air pollution, and deforestation, among others. Given this, it is critical for learners to be willing to engage with environmental issues that are close to home, as well as those that are socio-spatially distant. This paper’s authors address how perceived socio-spatial distance of environmental issues affects adolescents’ willingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviors (PEB) to address those issues.

The authors’ literature review reveals diverse opinions about the effect of geographical distance on people’s concern about issues. On the one hand, some researchers have argued that people are more concerned about issues that directly affect them at a local level. On the other hand, studies suggest that people consider distant environmental problems to be more serious. This has been attributed to optimism bias— the idea that things are not as bad as they seem. Given these conflicting findings, the authors aimed to address questions related to the impact of distance on people’s environmental concern in more detail, using the norm activation model (NAM) developed by Schwartz and Howard (1981).

The norm activation model, frequently used in environmental psychology, was originally developed to describe prosocial behavior. According to this model, once a person becomes aware of a problem, he or she evaluates the assumed harmful consequences. In the case of this research, the authors distinguished between egoistic assumed consequences (AC) (i.e., concern for self) and biospheric AC (i.e., concern for nature). In addition, the authors distinguished between problems resulting from socio-economic causes (e.g., poverty) and ecological causes (e.g., pollution). The authors also hypothesized that socio-spatial distance would affect AC, but in different ways. Specifically, they hypothesized that adolescents would report greater egoistic AC for ecological problems close to home. They thought, for example, that environmental pollution in one’s own country would be considered more serious a concern for oneself than pollution in a foreign country. By contrast, the authors hypothesized that biospheric AC would be greater for socio-economic problems far away; they thought, for example, that poor income opportunities in a foreign country would be perceived as causing greater deterioration of natural resources than similar socio-economic problems in one’s own country.

Another element of the NAM model is that the expected barriers to solving a problem mediate behavioral outcomes. For the purposes of this study, the researchers specifically considered the barrier related to perceived behavioral control (PBC), the extent to which a person perceives an action to be under her or his control, as opposed to under the control of external factors that are personally uncontrollable. In other words, someone with high PBC would feel fewer barriers to action than someone with low PBC. With regard to socio-spatial distance, the authors hypothesized that greater socio-spatial distance between oneself and the problem would correlate with lower PBC.

The final factor of the NAM model the authors investigated was perceived helplessness (PH). The authors differentiate PH from PBC as being more specifically related to an emotional state of feeling overwhelmed by the severity and enormity of the issue. Feeling personally helpless (high PH) is associated with decreased action to address the problem. The researchers hypothesized that greater socio-spatial distance would correlate with feeling more helpless.

To test these hypotheses, the authors conducted their study at 52 schools in Germany: 26 urban schools and 26 rural schools. In total, 938 students completed a questionnaire with items collecting quantitative data. The students were all in 10th grade; 96% of the students were between the ages of 15 and 17, with a few students as young as 12 or as old as 18.

Two different questionnaires were administered that addressed sustainability issues and the students’ willingness to take action to address associated problems. The questionnaires were identical, except the “socio-economically not distant” survey referred exclusively to Germany (n=470 students), and the “distant” survey referred to “a developing country” (n = 468). With the distant survey, students were asked to choose a developing country to keep in mind when answering the questions. The vast majority of students chose the region “Africa” (81%), followed by India (17%), China (16%), and South America (8%). In total, 45 different countries or regions were listed; in addition, 35% of respondents chose to not list a country.

Items on the questionnaire measured: biospheric AC resulting from socio-economic problems; egoistic AC resulting from ecological problems; PBC; PH; and willingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviors (WPEB).

Analysis of the questionnaires showed that WPEB did not differ significantly between those referring to Germany and those referring to a developing country. The authors regarded this result as encouraging, since it refutes the notion that students may only be willing to take pro-environmental action regarding local issues. In addition, this result supports a core concept of Education for Sustainable Development, which, among other things, often aims to foster interest and action regarding issues that are socio-spatially distant.

The hypotheses that distant environmental problems would be perceived as less relevant to the self (egoistic AC) and that distant socio-economic problems would have greater consequences for the environment (biospheric AC) were both supported by the data. The authors suggest that, given these findings, educators can counteract these biases by helping students understand the effects that distant environmental problems have on themselves personally and also the effects that local socio-economic problems have on the environment.

As expected, PBC did have a significant positive correlation with WPEB in both surveys. In other words, higher PBC was correlated with high WPEB, and vice versa. PH was the only variable that showed only weak or insignificant correlations to WPEB. Specifically, the correlation of PH and WPEB was weakly significant with the Germany sample and not correlated with the foreign country sample. Despite these results, the authors stress that it is worthwhile for teachers to avoid overwhelming learners with environmental and social issues to the point that they feel helpless and fatalistic. They also emphasize that what occurs at a local level—no matter where one is—affects the whole world.

The Bottom Line

To understand and address today’s major environmental challenges requires tackling the interdependence of local and global issues. To counteract common biases and misunderstanding, it is especially important for educators to help students understand how socio-spatially distant environmental problems pose negative consequences for the students personally, on a range of scales, from local to global. It is also vital to help students understand how local socioeconomic and environmental issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and air and water pollution, pose potential consequences for the environment close to home as well as at a range of scales.