Appealing to empathy encourages green behavior

How can people be convinced to act in an environmentally-friendly way? Offering money is one common approach. But researchers have suggested another strategy that can encourage green behavior. It’s called “empathy conservation”: prompting the person to consider someone else’s point of view.

The team considered a scenario in which a farmer must decide how to till his or her land. Choosing conservation tillage will reduce soil erosion and chemical run-off into rivers, improving water quality for people who live downstream. But this method is more expensive for the farmer.

The researchers recruited 400 people from their community to play out this hypothetical scenario. First, participants took a quiz to gauge their level of knowledge about farming. People with higher scores were assigned to take on the roles of farmers, while those with lower scores played people living downstream. About one-third of the participants were from rural areas, and 71 percent had family members who were farmers.

For the first 10 rounds of the game, each “farmer” had to decide what proportion of his or her land would receive the conservation-tillage treatment. The researchers provided a financial incentive for greener behavior in the form of tokens, which could be converted to cash at the end of the experiment.

For the next 10 rounds of the game, the team changed the incentives. Instead of a financial incentive, one group of farmers received “empathy nudges”. A downstream water user sent the farmer a message containing a phrase such as “imagine how you would feel in my place” or “try to put yourself in my shoes for a while”. For a second group of farmers, the financial incentive was boosted. A third group received both the financial incentive and empathy nudge, and a fourth group had no incentive at all to behave in a sustainable way.

The researchers then compared how the farmers’ decisions differed between the first and second halves of the game. When all incentives were removed, the amount of land that the farmers placed under conservation tillage dropped by an average of 13 percent. But farmers who received an appeal for empathy continued to place roughly the same amount under conservation tillage, even though they no longer had a financial incentive.

Not surprisingly, the group who received a bigger financial incentive in the second half of the game increased their conservation tillage by 14 percent. When the financial incentive and empathy nudge were combined, that figure went up to 28 percent.

To be sure, the study participants were not farmers and might not fully grasp what conservation tillage entails. And the amount of money at stake was small; on average, each player took home about $43. Still, it’s intriguing to think that such a simple prompt could nudge people toward more sustainable behavior. Roberta Kwok | 13 August 2015

Source: Czap, N.V. et al. 2015. Walk in my shoes: Nudging for empathy conservation. Ecological Economics doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.07.010.

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