Tom Crompton: Working on Bigger-Than-Self Problems
"Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake."
This is how British journalist George Monbiot sums up a new report by Tom Crompton: "Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values." Crompton is change strategist at WWF-UK and blogs at Identity Campaigning and the newly formed Common Cause Working Group.
From Monbiot's article, in the Guardian:
Our social identity is shaped by values that psychologists classify as extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs that transcend their self-interest.
Few people are all-extrinsic or all-intrinsic. Our social identity is formed by a mixture of values. But psychological tests in nearly 70 countries show that values cluster in remarkably consistent patterns. ... These values suppress each other: the stronger someone's extrinsic aspirations, the weaker his or her intrinsic goals.
From the Common Cause report:
It is inescapably the case that any communication or campaign will inevitably serve to convey particular values, intentionally or otherwise. Moreover, in conveying these values, the communication or campaign will help to further strengthen those values culturally.
People’s decisions are driven importantly by the values they hold – frequently unconsciously, and sometimes to the virtual exclusion of a rational assessment of the facts. In particular, some values provide a better source of motivation for engaging bigger-than-self problems than other values.
The conjunction of these two insights – that communications and campaigns inevitably serve to strengthen particular values, and that a person’s values have a profound and usually unconscious effect on the behavioural choices that they make – raises profound ethical questions.
The practical response to this ethical challenge cannot be to strive for value-neutral communications (this would be impossible). Rather, it is to strive for transparency, communicating to an audience not just what values a particular communication or campaign is intended to convey, but also why those values are considered important.
This report deserves a lot of attention and some hard thinking. Rather than summarize further, I'm going to pull out one appendix and hyperlink the sources.
Appendix 2.5: Attitudes to the environment
Quantitative empirical studies document that people who strongly endorse self-enhancing values and extrinsic goals also express more negative attitudes towards non-human nature.
For example, Wesley Schultz and colleagues (2005) studied almost 1,000 university students from six nations and found that values for power and achievement were associated with viewing humans as consumers of, rather than part of, nature. Schultz and colleagues also reported that stronger values placed on power and achievement are associated with less concern about how environmental damage affects other humans, children, future generations and non-human life. Where these self-enhancing values promote concern about ecological damage, this concern is limited to an egotistic consideration of how such damage might affect one personally. Conversely, a positive correlation has been found between self-transcendent values (universalism and benevolence) and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour (Schultz et al., 2005).
Other work (Saunders and Munro, 2000; Good, 2007) corroborates these results: caring more about materialistic values is associated with significantly less positive attitudes towards the environment, and with lower levels of biophilia (the desire to affiliate with life).
Values have been found to influence behaviour as well as attitudes. Studies in the US and the UK show that adolescents who more strongly endorse materialistic goals in life report themselves as being less likely to turn off lights in unused rooms, to recycle, to reuse paper and to engage in other positive environmental behaviours (Gatersleben et al., 2008; Kasser, 2005).
Similar findings have been reported for American adults, among whom extrinsic life-goals and more materialistic values are found to be negatively correlated with the frequency of engagement in pro-environmental behaviours such as riding a bicycle, reusing paper, buying second-hand, and recycling (Brown and Kasser, 2005; Richins and Dawson, 1992).
Brown and Kasser (2005) also examined how the ecological footprints of 400 North American adults were associated with their goals in life. A relatively high focus on extrinsic life-goals was related to a higher ecological footprint arising from lifestyle choices regarding transportation, housing and diet.
Game theory research further supports these results. Kennon Sheldon and Holly McGregor (2000) assessed college students’ value orientation before asking them to play a forest-management game in which they simulated directorship of a timber company. Each subject (or timber company) then made a series of bids against three other companies to harvest wood from a state forest. Sheldon and McGregor found that in comparison to other groups, those composed of four individuals who all scored relatively highly in extrinsic goals exploited the forest resources more intensively, and were significantly less likely to have any trees remaining at the 25th year of bidding. The authors generalise from these results to reflect on other instances of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. They conclude that: “the more intrinsically oriented people there are within a group, the more everybody in that group prospers.”
Data at the national level also demonstrates negative associations between environmental behaviour and cultural values for mastery and hierarchy (roughly equivalent to the personal values of achievement and power). Kasser (in press) correlated archival data about the values of large samples of undergraduates and teachers in 20 wealthy nations with the amount of CO2 each nation emitted in 2003. Even after controlling for gross domestic product (GDP), per capita CO2 emissions were higher in countries where citizens placed a greater priority on values associated with wealth, achievement and status.
These results are further corroborated by work on the relationship between people’s values and their preferences for climate-change related policy. Anthony Leiserowitz, for example, has conducted studies on the importance of people’s cultural biases in determining their attitudes towards climate change policy. He found that:
“Policy preferences [that is, support for policies designed to mitigate climate change] were most strongly influenced by value commitments. Support for national and international climate policies was strongly associated with pro-egalitarian values, while opposition was associated with anti-egalitarian, pro-individualist and pro- hierarchist values. Interestingly, these value commitments were stronger predictors than either political party identification or ideology” (Leiserowitz, 2006).
Finally, studies have shown that levels of motivation to engage in particular behaviours are also higher when these behaviours are adopted in line with the goal of community feeling. Typical of such studies is one conducted by Maarten Vansteenkiste and colleagues (2004a). In this experiment, students were asked to read a text about recycling. Subjects were randomly assigned to have this reading task presented as relevant either to the extrinsic goal of saving money or to the intrinsic goal of benefiting the community. Results showed that those who had the goal presented in intrinsic terms not only learned the material in the text more deeply, but were also more likely to voluntarily visit the library and a recycling plant to learn more about recycling. Frequency of engagement in pro-environmental behaviour, it seems, is higher when the level of self-determination (or the appeal to more intrinsic goals) is higher.
In constructing the values circumplex (Figure 2), Shalom Schwartz and colleagues found that the three value items related to nature (‘unity with nature’, ‘protecting the environment’, and ‘a world of beauty’) are closely associated with value items that refer primarily to the welfare of other humans outside the ‘in-group’ (‘world at peace’, ‘equality’, and ‘social justice’). It seems that concern for nature is closely linked to the concern for the welfare of all humankind, and that activating and encouraging universalism values will have the benefit of promoting concern about both global environmental problems and global poverty. Shalom Schwartz writes that universalism “is presumed to arise with the realisation that failure to protect the natural environment or to understand people who are different, and to treat them justly, will lead to strife and to destruction of the resources on which life depends” (Schwartz, 1992).