To encourage environmentalism, let people be selfish?

This article is available in Spanish through a partnership with the Institute of Ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Read in Spanish >>

The world is getting warmer, the oceans are becoming more acidic, there is a global biodiversity crisis. But despite decades of environmental messaging – reduce, reuse, recycle; save the whales – Americans as a group are no more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors than they were 20 years ago. Why not?

University of British Columbia psychologists Ashley V. Whillans and Elizabeth W. Dunn think that it may have something to do with the way we think of our work. While Americans work roughly the same number of hours each week as they did 50 years ago, we feel, hour for hour, that our time is more valuable now. The researchers point out that being paid by the hour leads folks to associate their time with a tangible dollar amount, and the sector of the workforce that gets paid hourly increased through the eighties and nineties, with that proportion maintained through at least 2012.

Could it be that folks who think of time as money consequently devalue any time they spend volunteering for free, or even making any sort of uncompensated effort? Some research suggests yes.

Even folks who are paid by salary, when asked to calculate their average hourly wage, become less willing to volunteer without compensation. Similarly, Whillans and Dunn suspect that even the sorts of environmental behaviors that really don’t take much time at all, like recycling, could be affected if people are poised to think about the monetary value associated with their precious time.

That’s because when people think of the worth of their own time, they think more about their own needs, desires, and wants. They focus on their own selves, to the possible detriment of thinking about the needs, desires, and wants of others, or about the general welfare of their communities. “There is a motivational conflict between values related to money and values supportive of prosociality,” argued the researchers recently in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. “Thus, we propose that thinking about time as money, which may lead individuals to desire compensation for their work, and to prioritize personal goals, will decrease engagement in everyday environmental behaviors.”

Whillans and Dunn addressed their hypothesis in two different ways. First, they turned to the “British Household Panel Survey.” It’s a nationally representative survey that collects data from more than 5,000 households and contains some 10,000 interviews of adults age 16 and over. The eighteenth wave of the survey included information about both hourly-wage status and environmental behavior. The psychologists predicted that hourly workers would report engaging in fewer environmental behaviors than salaried workers, and that’s precisely what they found. Because it is simply a correlation, it is impossible to make any causal claims on the basis of this finding.

That’s why they turned next to a series of experiments. The researchers manipulated groups of undergrads to think of their time in terms of their own financial gain. They then compared those students to control groups that were not manipulated in that way. In different experiments, they were asked about their willingness to engage in environmental behaviors (like reusing Ziploc bags or switching from paper to e-bills) or they were given a paper-cutting task after which they could either throw away their trash in a nearby garbage can or in a recycling bin placed outside the room. In both experiments, participants were less likely to behave in an environmentally conscious way if they had been made to think of their time as money. Since participants were randomly assigned to their groups, the researchers could be more confident that the effects they saw were not due to socioeconomic variables.

In a fourth experiment, the researchers left the campus and turned to people shopping in a public market in Vancouver. After collecting demographic and wage-related information, participants were to imagine how they would react in a series of situations that involved a tradeoff between time and environmental behavior, such as recycling a soda can or using a travel mug for their morning coffee. As in the British survey, those who were paid by the hour were less willing to spend their time behaving sustainably. The researchers were able to rule out the possibility that other variables like sex, age, or household income explained their results.

Finally, in a fifth experiment, Whillans and Dunn wanted to see whether they could mitigate the sorts of patterns they had found in their earlier experiments by highlighting the potential personal benefits to environmental action. All participants in this experiment were led to think of time as money, but environmental behavior was framed either as a personal benefit or a communal one. “The detrimental effect of seeing time as money on recycling is eliminated when people are led to see environmental behavior as self-beneficial,” they say. In other words, people are willing to engage in environmentally friendly activities, as long as they think they’re being selfish.

Still, why would the few seconds it takes to recycle something be enough to warrant behaving selfishly? Whillans and Dunn think that people who perceive time itself as monetarily valuable may become “irrationally overprotective” of that time. It’s not that protecting as valuable a resource like time is irrational. Instead, they suggest that an intense focus on protecting that time may encourage people to do so even when the saved time is negligible.

“To be clear, in the absence of any time cost we do not expect people to act in anti-environmental ways. Instead, we suggest that when facing even a trivial trade-off, people are less likely to engage in environmental behavior when they put a price tag on their time,” they explain. That’s consistent with other research on behavioral decision-making, which shows that heuristic processes allow people to make quick choices, even if those heuristics sometimes lead to irrational ones.

Whillans and Dunn conclude that future research ought to focus on how payment schedules used by business and organizations could either promote or weaken environmentally friendly behaviors.

A more cynical view might hold that efforts should be made to convince people that sustainability is actually quite selfish. The world might be a better place for it. – Jason G. Goldman | 29 April 2015

Source: Whillans, A. V., & Dunn, E. W. (2015). Thinking about time as money decreases environmental behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 127, 44-52. DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.12.001.

Header image: shutterstock.com

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