Can Pro-environmental Behavior Produce a “License” to Pollute?

October 4, 2013

By Marie Komori, Shajuti Hossain and Gabriel Goffman

Lately we have been discussing plans to study various ways that human psychology can help or hinder consumers’ energy use. One interesting topic is the differences between goal “progress” and goal “commitment”:  When people work towards a goal they feel they are making progress. Ironically, this very feeling of progress can lead many people to feel a moral license to then deviate from the goal. This applied in many contexts (e.g., dieting) and may also apply to environmental or energy efficient framework. For example, a person may work hard to bike to work every day, reducing their carbon footprint, but then because of this “green action” he/she may then reward themselves with the carbon expensive cross-country road trip. Relatedly, when people view a positive trait as innate and part about themselves they are more likely to continue the trait. If they view this trait as dependent on action, they are less committed to continue. We hope to look at different behaviors within this framework of Goal Commitment vs. Goal Progress in environmental behavior.  Do people who see their environmental behavior as commitment or progress? How can we help people feel more comitted?  More broadly how do people define environmentalism as a trait?  Maybe people define environmentalism based on their political actions. Or maybe people identify with environmentalism through being a vegetarian.  Possibly, vegetarian consumption or other environmentally conscious behavior lead people to embrace the identity as an environmentalist and leads to goal commitment.

We are also interested in exploring perceptions of vegetarianism and how vegetarianism justify their commitment.  Do vegetarians also feel they have an environmental moral license?  Or does vegetarian behavior became a goal commitment trait leading vegetarians to practice other environmentally beneficial activities? We hope to delve into this and many other ways that psychology influences the behavior choices people make in regards to energy use.

Project: Goals and Collective Efficacy: Routes to Energy