Research Summary

Shaping pro-environmental attitudes among public service trainees: an experimental study

Pre-service training improves Taiwanese government officials’ environmental attitudes

Environmental Education Research
2021

Government employees have immense power to influence policies that have environmental consequences, which can either support or detract from a sustainable future. Environmental pre-service training programs have proven to be effective in increasing pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, but they have rarely been used or studied in governmental institutions. This study assessed the impacts of a pre-service training module on the environmental attitudes of Taiwanese government officials, while also looking at the impacts of incorporating visual stimuli into the training and how public service motivation affected attitude changes.

Mere exposure effect (MEE) posits that an individual will construct an opinion towards a stimulus simply by being exposed to that stimulus repeatedly. The researchers aimed to understand how MEE could be utilized in pre-service training by exposing government employees to a slideshow focused on environmental destruction–pollution, habitat loss, and climate change–in Taiwan. The concept of public service motivation (PSM) is based on an individual’s desire to contribute to the greater good of the public and their tendency towards altruism and selflessness. The researchers speculated that higher levels of PSM would result in more significant increases in pro-environmental attitudes following the MEE. Taiwan is a democracy with three branches of government. To successfully implement pro-environmental legislation, it is important for Taiwanese officials to hold pro-environmental attitudes.

The structure of this study was a standard experimental design with an experimental group (266 people) and a control group (274 people). All participants were mid-level government employees, who held management positions. Both control and experimental groups were given a pretest, and two posttests, but the experimental group participated in an environmental training module intervention between the pretest and first posttest. The first posttest occurred immediately after the intervention, while the second was administered five weeks later. The training module was administered in the form of a 30-minute lecture and focused on environmental degradation in Taiwan. A subgroup of the experimental group was also tasked with watching an environmental documentary called Taivalu, a film focused on local sea level rise. The control group received a 30-minute lecture, but it was not related to environmental issues. The study’s intervention was integrated into the participants’ annual pre-job training course, which took place between November 2015 to March 2016 in Taiwan. Out of 64 total pre-job courses held during the time of the study, the researchers randomly selected 12 courses to participate, and assigned six classes (266 people) to the experimental group and the other six classes (274 people) to the control group. The experimental subgroup that watched the video during their intervention consisted of three classes (132 people).

The one pretest and two posttests were identical, and included a section to assess pro-environmental attitudes, measured by the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) instrument, and a section to assess public service motivation (PSM). The NEP included 15 items that measured attitudes using a five-point Likert scale (1 = weak pro-environmental attitude, 5 = strong pro-environmental attitude). The section focused on PSM consisted of sixteen items that measured motivation using a five-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree). The data collected from the surveys was analyzed at individual and group levels, and analyzed for changes over time.

The data showed an increase in pro-environmental attitudes from the mere exposure to environmental issues. The NEP scores from the experiential group’s posttest increased from pretest levels, while the control group’s NEP scores dropped slightly from pretest to posttest. There was evidence that the impact of the intervention decreased over time because the NEP scores in the first posttest were higher than in the second posttest. When comparing the subgroup who watched the documentary to the rest of the experimental group, it was clear that the visual stimulus resulted in a longer-lasting impact on environmental attitudes. Between the first and second posttest, the NEP scores of participants that did not watch the documentary decreased whereas the NEP scores of those who did watch the documentary increased.

The data also showed a significant difference between participants who were highly motivated by public service and those who were moderately motivated. Individuals with the highest PSM had more dramatic increases in their NEP scores following the intervention, in comparison to individuals with moderate PSM. This meant that participants who were more motivated by public service had a more dramatic increase in their pro-environmental attitudes. In addition, the increases in NEP scores remained after five weeks for those with high PSM, whereas NEP scores dropped back down to pretest levels in the second posttest for the moderate PSM group. In other words, participants who were more motivated by public service were more likely to maintain their increases in pro-environmental attitudes over the long-term.

The authors recognized limitations with the NEP instrument for measuring pro-environmental attitudes. Some academics critique the NEP for potential bias and lack of precision, and the instrument fails to incorporate behavioral observation, so participant’s reported environmental attitudes may not reflect their environmental behaviors. The authors also discussed the need to replicate this study within other institutions, because this study is not generalizable outside of Taiwan’s public sector.

The authors recommended that environmental pre-service training be used not just for educators, but also in government institutions. For government employees, pre-service training should focus on local environmental challenges and provide time for participants to discuss the environmental consequences of government policies. Due to the significant and lasting impact of attitude changes from exposure to the documentary, the authors recommended incorporating videos and other visual stimuli to communicate relevant environmental issues into pre-service trainings. The evidence that high public service motivation (PSM) resulted in more dramatic and longer-lasting increases in pro-environmental attitudes suggested that environmental organizations and governments should recruit individuals with high PSM. Organizations should also aim to promote high PSM within their employees by creating a more selfless culture with a strong value system.

The Bottom Line

Government employees play an important role in building a sustainable future by having the power to support pro-environmental policies. This study aimed to assess how exposure to environmental destruction in a pre-service training would impact government employees’ environmental attitudes, how effect of visual stimuli, and how public service motivation (PSM) interacted with attitude shifts. During their annual pre-service training, 540 Taiwanese government employees were assigned to a control group or an experimental group that underwent an environmental training. The researchers measured environmental attitudes via the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) and PSM in a pretest and two posttests. The data showed environmental pre-service training resulted in an increase in pro-environmental attitudes, and that watching a video documentary caused the results to be longer-lasting. High PSM was also linked to more dramatic and longer-lasting increases in NEP scores. The researchers recommend more environmental education training programs be used in the public sector.