Which social incentives can promote pro-environmental behavior?

One of the most critical components of human life is the environment and its condition is mainly determined by human attitudes and behaviors. Researches have showed that depleting resources, global warming and loss of biodiversity nowadays are caused by the lack of human behaviors that care about the environment. If humans do not stop damaging the environment, the devastating effects of global environmental change will continue to be significant threats to human life.

Environmental protection is the main challenge for our society. Some aspects, including depleted water availability, non-effective controls on emissions, destruction of trees for wood as construction material and so on, have added up to the complexities in which we are facing today. This situation requires not only understanding of issues, but a holistic approach that encourages change in people’s habits toward sustainable lifestyles. Therefore, understanding the behavior in which individuals take to minimize the negative impacts on the environment (namely pro-environmental behavior) and the factors driving it are extremely important to ensure environmental sustainability. For instance, reducing single use items, recycling and increasing cycling and walking rates are examples of pro-environmental behavior that could bring sizable positive effects to the environment.

Barriers to pro-environmental behavior

Barriers to pro-environmental behavior include a wide range of factors that prevent people from making changes in their lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly. Psychological, social/cultural, financial and structural barriers are the most common types. For instance, individuals’ surroundings (e.g., neighborhood, friends, family, etc.) could influence their decision to take more sustainable behaviors (e.g., reducing household energy consumption or using electric cars).

Moreover, pro-environmental behavior can be hindered by the high cost of environmentally friendly alternatives, and thus the financial measures (i.e., monetary incentives) could be used to support new environmentally-friendly technology. For instance, households may be discouraged from making energy-saving improvements because of budget constraints and high project costs.

In addition to traditional policy measures (e.g., taxes and subsidies) to promote pro-environmental behaviors, researchers have emphasized the effectiveness of alternative non-monetary measures, namely “social incentives”. Social incentives include information, social norms, social influences and the formation of networks or groups of individuals. 

Based on a careful analysis of existing research, we have identified three social incentives, including internal social influence, social connections and individual trust in institutions, which policymakers can use to effectively promote pro-environmental behavior.

Internal social influence

The internal social influence that motivates people to change their perceptions and attitudes is extremely important and necessary to promote pro-environmental behavior. Effective environmental policies should focus on strengthening individuals’ personal norms by fostering environmental awareness and the sense of obligation toward eco-friendly behaviors (e.g., improving green education and providing environmental information). For instance, altering individuals’ perceptions by providing different visual attention to climate information (e.g., global temperature change) could reinforce their beliefs and motivations to take actions to mitigate climate change.

Social connections

Social connections provide a valuable source of knowledge and information for individuals to better drive them toward sustainable collective conservation behaviors. Research has shown that agglomeration bonuses can be used to encourage people to collaborate in a network to achieve an environmental target. Moreover, we suggest that establishing a favorable regulatory framework for environmental associations or groups is also important to encourage people to interact in an enlarged network.

Trust in institutions

Citizens’ trust in government, institutions or leaders can dictate their behaviors to generate desired policy outcomes. Trust in institutions could reduce the risk of free riding and opportunistic behaviors as citizens would be willing to sacrifice some immediate personal benefits (e.g., by contributing to common goods) if they have positive expectations of the long-term outcomes of the government’s policies. Therefore, it is important to make institutions more inclusive, transparent, receptive and efficient at the local and national levels by increasing transparency, improving communication and interaction with populations.

For more information:

Nguyen-Van P, Stenger A, Tiet T. (2021). Social incentive factors in interventions promoting sustainable behaviors: A meta-analysis. PLOS ONE 16(12): e0260932. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0260932 

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