Social Psychology's Influence on Environmental Concern and Behavior

Newman, T. P., & Fernandes, R. (2016). A re-assessment of factors associated with environmental concern and behavior using the 2010 General Social Survey. Environmental Education Research, 22, 153 - 175.

Environmental educators are often concerned with providing opportunities and pathways that connect people with environmental action, yet understanding the disconnection between pro-environmental attitudes and environmentally related behaviors can be challenging in a field with a range of theoretical frameworks. In the quest to understand influences on environmental behavior, many behavioral science researchers disagree on whether it is more important to emphasize social demographic factors or social psychological factors. A 1998 study found that social psychological factors, such as thought patterns and biases, were particularly influential in how people felt about and acted toward the environment. Findings from that study suggested that social psychological variables were more influential on environmental behavior than social demographic factors, such as one's background and socioeconomic situation.

Re-examining past research using new measures and current data can help test whether long-held ideas remain accurate, particularly in light of changing social and environmental conditions. For that reason, this study's authors sought to replicate the earlier environmental-concern-and-behavior study, exploring whether social psychological variables or demographics might better explain behavior. To that end, the researchers conducted a quantitative analysis of data from the 2010 U.S. General Social Survey (GSS), which included demographic and psychological measures not previously used. The GSS included interview data from 2,044 people about the following:

Behavioral indicators, including consumer behavior, belonging to environmental groups, views on environmental spending, willingness to pay or sacrifice for the environment, signing petitions, and thinking the government should protect the environment.
Knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and cognitions, including Awareness of Consequences (AOC), knowledge of environmental causes, knowledge of environmental solutions, and internal or external locus of control (whether people feel their actions can make a difference).
General worldview and ideology about humanity and the environment, including whether respondents think economic progress and human activity are environmentally harmful, and whether they consider themselves to be postmaterialist (defined as “a value orientation toward self-expression and quality of life over economic and physical security”).
Social demographic variables, including gender, race, education, age, income, religion and spirituality, party identification (liberal, conservative, or independent), and political ideology (liberalism).

Researchers analyzed these data to examine how social demographic and social psychological factors related to environmental concern and behavior. Controlling for social demographics, social psychological factors explained a significant amount of the differences in environmental concern and behavior, with “Awareness of Consequences” showing the strongest relationship to environmental behavior. Although not all of the social psychological variables were significant, many of the variables linked with some aspects of environmental concern and behavior, but not with others.

Social demographic characteristics, together with the postmaterialism variable, explained between 8% and 19% of the variance in environmental attitudes, values, and beliefs. Researchers also found statistically significant relationships between some of these factors and measures of intention and behavior. In particular, they found the following to be important:

Age related to consumer behavior. Individuals who were in the slightly younger age bracket (30- to 44-years-old) were significantly less likely than those in the middle-age category (45- to 65-years-old) to behave pro-environmentally. This finding is somewhat different from what past research has suggested; the authors postulated that other factors, such as economics, might explain this finding.
Education was related to environmental attitudes, values, and beliefs, as well as behavior. In this case, the authors surmised that the “education” variable might serve as a proxy for environmentally related knowledge and skills. Interestingly, the authors found a slight negative relationship between education and “Awareness of Consequences,” such that respondents with a higher level of education were less likely to report being aware of consequences of various environmentally related issues.
Race-related demographic variable(s) resulted in mixed findings. The authors found that race related to some social psychological factors surrounding environmental beliefs, but not others, leading them to suggest that future research should consider potential mediating factors, such as education, organizations, affiliations, and communication networks.
Political ideology was associated with public behaviors related to environmental activism, but it was not associated with non-activist public behaviors, such as approval of regulations or public policies, or private behaviors, such as making environmentally friendly purchases.
Religion was somewhat associated with behavior, with those indicating a Catholic religious orientation more likely than those indicating a Protestant orientation to engage in pro-environmental consumer behavior.
Postmaterialism, or valuing quality of life over economic and physical security, was positively associated with environmental action and advocacy.

Overall, the findings from this study suggest that researchers cannot discount demographics entirely. The study identified several demographic factors that relate to pro-environmental attitudes, values, beliefs, intentions, and behaviors. The authors suggest, therefore, that researchers should further study these complex relationships to understand how the variables interact.

The Bottom Line

<p>Given the many situational and psychological variables that affect how people learn, think, feel, and act, researchers and practitioners who are interested in motivating pro-environmental behaviors must consider complex relationships among attitudes, values, knowledge, and skills, as well as the context in which those variables interact. Consistent with prior research, this study indicates that, although social demographics cannot be discounted, social psychological variables are more likely to be significantly associated with multiple measures of environmental concern and behavior. In particular, environmental educators may wish to focus on developing “Awareness of Consequences” among participants, as this factor shows strong relationships with environmental intentions and behaviors.</p>