Psychology researchers Schultz and Zelezny (1999) produced a study that caught my eye as offering some fascinating insights into how our underlying values could be influencing the kind of environmental concerns we have, and how these concerns drive our pro-environmental behaviours. The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, is just over twenty years old; but just as environmental issues have only grown in importance since then, so has the importance of understanding what motivates people to engage with those issues. Wesley Schultz has made important contributions to the field, so in this post I’ll give you the basic idea of his work on values and environmental concerns.
The basic idea
Schultz and Zelezny (1999) present a three factor model of environmental concerns. These factors are classified as egoistic, altruistic, and biospheric. Each factor represents an attitude that can motivate pro-environmental behaviour given the right kind of stimulus. For example, someone with the egoistic attitude might be motivated to recycle the packaging of a product if they were rewarded for it – perhaps with a free box of the product for every fifty packages they returned for recycling. Someone with the altruistic attitude might be more likely to recycle because they were moved to do so by the scenes of thousands of children on a climate march, prompting them to think of the kind of world they would like to leave to their children’s generation. Finally, someone with the biospheric attitude might recycle for the sake of marine wildlife, and as part of the overall fight to protect the health of the natural world. As you may have already noticed, these three environmental attitudes cluster around three objects of value; namely, self, other people, and the biosphere. So the idea is that pro-environmental behaviours are triggered when one of these objects of value is perceived as being under threat.
Schultz and Zelezny's (1999) study provides some empirical evidence in support of this model. Thousands of people from several countries were asked how important different consequences of harming nature were for them. These included consequences for oneself, ones family, and the wider natural world such as plants, birds and marine life. A factor analysis on the results showed how peoples’ concern for the consequences of environmental harm tended to cluster either around the consequences for themselves, or the consequences for other people, or the consequences for the wider natural world, supporting the idea that peoples' concern for the environment tends to be dominated by either egoistic, altruistic or biopheric concerns.
The inclusion of nature in Self
The inclusion of nature in Self measurement was also included in the questionnaire. This is an instrument developed by Schultz intended to measure the degree to which a person feels nature to be connected to their own life and sense of identity. Unsurprisingly, it was found that the more a person felt nature to be connected to their sense of self, the stronger was their biospheric attitude. Conversely, those who saw their self and nature as separate tended have their environmental concerns driven by the egoistic attitude.
For me, there are some important take home messages from Schultz and Zelezny’s (1999) research. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that egoistic, altruistic and biospheric concerns are mutually exclusive, I would like to suggest that a biospheric foundation for environmental behaviours is of greater utility because it is universally applicable. For example, a person with the egoistic attitude might protest against the opening of a local landfill out of concern for how this might effect the value of his house. A person with the altruistic attitude might sign a petition to stop local parents dropping their kids off to school in air polluting cars because the altruists are concerned for the health of all the primary school kids. Finally, someone with the biospheric attitude might join a political party in order to campaign for policy change in the face of the climate crisis because nature is so closely unified with their sense of self that ‘what happens to the land happens to us’. However, whilst the person with a biospheric attitude could equally be predicted to participate along side the egoist and the altruist in their causes, this prediction would be unlikely to function in both directions. For example, the person motivated by egoistic concerns, whilst concerned about the landfill, would be less likely to sign up to a political party that places environmental policy ahead of lowering income tax, since the latter lies closer to egoistical values. Therefore, getting people on board when it comes to living sustainably and in harmony with nature would be a lot easier if more people had the biospheric attitude.
The good news
Later work by Schultz (2007) suggests that an individual is not fixed within either egoistic, altruistic or biospheric concerns. Rather, the underlying values that drive a person’s environmental attitudes can change if a shift in that person’s identification with nature occurs. Schultz (2007) found that if contact with a natural environment was sustained for a certain amount of time, participants’ connectedness to nature, and their pro-environmental intentions, also increased. It seems to me, then, that a reasonable conclusion to draw from all this is that if you want to increase support for pro-environmental behaviours, the most effective long term strategy is likely be rest on more people connecting to nature in meaningful ways, to the point where nature is included in their sense of self.
Ultimately, it’s not about understanding what nature can do for us that will drive our concern for the health of our beautiful planet. It’s about understanding that nature is us and we are nature. When we damage the environment through pollution or unsustainable extraction of material resources, we damage ourselves – not metaphorically, but literally. This is the realisation that produces a biospheric attitude.
Schultz, W. P., & Zelezny, L. (1999). Values as predictors of environmental attitudes: Evidence for consistency across 14 countries. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 255-265. doi: 10.1006/jevp.1999.0129
I'm a social scientist and data analyst and I'm in love with nature. One Beautiful Earth is where I bring these roles together. I keep a regular blog where you can read all about the latest science behind nature connection and the psychology of human responses to environmental issues such as climate change and much more besides.