Value-belief-norm theory can help educators develop effective messages

Caplow, S. (2021). Using value-belief-norm theory to explore visitor responses to education programs at animal-themed facilities. The Journal Of Environmental Education, 52, 190 - 204.

One pillar of environmental education's mission is to shape the pro-environmental values and behaviors of learners. Though many researchers have measured the outcomes of environmental education, the way values are communicated by an educator or teaching facility has not been explored in-depth. Value-belief-norm theory (VBN) states that an individual develops a value, has their beliefs affirmed from an external experience, and then actively demonstrates pro-environmental behaviors based on those values and beliefs. In this study, the researcher used the VBN framework to compare the ways three animal-centered teaching facilities with environmentally-friendly missions messaged their values, how visitors interpreted those messages, and whether the messages inspired pro-environmental behaviors.

The researcher conducted the study at an aquarium (the North Carolina Aquarium), a research facility (Duke Lemur Center), and a big cat sanctuary (Carolina Tiger Rescue) in North Carolina during 2012 and 2013. In total, the researcher hosted 47 interviews and collected 402 pre- and post-visit surveys from visitors at each site (139 from North Carolina Aquarium, 133 from Duke Lemur Center, and 130 from Carolina Tiger Rescue). The researcher also collected 110 post-visit surveys in total from the three sites from visitors who did not take the pre-visit survey. Interviews in 2012 were conducted with open-ended questions about environmental values, beliefs, norms, and familiarity with the site. For example, one open-ended question asked the participants to share the three most important things they learned during the tour. Visitors interviewed or surveyed spent approximately 45 minutes to 2 hours in a guided tour at the site. During interviews in 2013, the researcher asked interviewees to organize 30 cards that depicted experiences in order of importance to the participant. The pre-survey was designed to measure values, beliefs, and norms that influence pro-environmental behavior. Specifically, the survey used the Animal Attitudes Scale (AAS) to measure how visitors conceive issues of animal welfare and the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) to measure visitors' environmental beliefs from a global perspective. The post-visit survey asked for the likelihood that visitors would engage in 11 pro-environmental behaviors that were either suggested or interpreted from the site program. It also included three open-ended responses about what visitors learned during their visit. The interview and survey data were then analyzed by the researcher to determine VBN of these three sites.

The data showed that the visitors' interpretations of each sites' values matched the intention of the tour guide educators and followed VBN. For example, Duke Lemur Center shared messages about the science behind lemur conservation during the guided tour. In the post-visit survey, visitors shared facts they learned about lemurs and biodiversity as well as the importance of the species to humans and the environment in the post-visit survey. The intention to act, willingness to adopt positive environmental behaviors and a direct factor effecting pro-environmental behaviors, was high across all three sites. For example, some visitors stated they were likely to practice a specific pro-environmental behavior (like spreading the word about the facility and its mission), but most visitors were non-committal about adopting new pro-environmental behaviors, citing a lack of time, money, or interest. North Carolina Aquarium visitors were more likely to financially support the facility compared to Duke Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue, although visitors identified that donating money to Duke Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue was the best direct way to impact the facility. The researcher concluded that the key value messages the sites conveyed were interpreted as intended and aligned with VBN to inspire some level of behavior change, aligning with the value-belief portion of VBN. However, VBN alone does not predict the willingness to engage in pro-environmental behavior change due to the reasons visitors shared. So, the norm component of VBN, or what makes pro-environmental behaviors habitual, is harder to obtain simply from messaging.

There were limitations in this study. First, it was not clear if the tour guides were the same during tours at each site with visitors that were surveyed and interviewed, so messaging and content could have been affected by different guides, which may have impacted the results. Second, some of the sites may not be able to directly encourage participation in particular pro-environmental behaviors because of economic or administrative constraints. For example, a facility may not explicitly solicit donations based on a policy in an attempt to not dissuade visitors from returning. Finally, the researcher did not include demographic information about the participants, which may have provided valuable insight into VBN.

The researcher showed that VBN can be used to develop and organize effective messages to support behavior change, and VBN can help educators support desired EE outcomes. Learning in a facility in close proximity to the subject is also an asset in a VBN framework. Further, free-choice learning may facilitate deeper VBN because it allows visitors to spend more time in the facility than going on a guided tour. Finally, because the Aquarium gave the most explicit behavioral directives during the guided tour compared with the other sites, targeting behaviors directly in communications may be the most effective and efficient way to influence pro-environmental behavior.

The Bottom Line

<p>The way key values are communicated has not been explored in-depth for environmental education. Value-belief-norm (VBN) is a progression in which an individual develops a value, has their beliefs affirmed from an external experience, and then actively demonstrates pro-environmental behaviors based on those values and beliefs. In this study, the researcher used VBN to compare the ways three North Carolina teaching facilities with environmentally-friendly missions messaged their values, how the visitors interpreted those messages, and whether the visit inspired pro-environmental behaviors based on those messages. The results showed the key messages the sites conveyed were interpreted as intended and aligned with VBN to inspire behavior change. However, VBN alone does not predicate the willingness to engage in pro-environmental behavior change due to the reasons visitors shared. The researcher concluded VBN can be used to develop and organize effective messages to support behavior change, and VBN can help educators support desired EE outcomes.</p>

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