The benefit of ecological footprint questionnaires for the environmental movement seems obvious enough, especially since the vast majority of people say they care about the planet. For most Westerners, their results on such a questionnaire are sobering, informing them about the unsustainability of their lifestyles. And that, you’d think, would lead them to start behaving in more environmentally friendly ways. Trouble is, it’s been shown that if changing their behaviour seems too difficult, many people change their attitudes instead, in this case ditching their pro-environmental beliefs (as a way to reduce what’s known as ‘cognitive dissonance’, which is when there’s a mismatch between our attitudes and behaviour).
Amara Brook has illuminated this dilemma further. She measured how important environmental issues were to the self-esteem of 212 undergrads. Then she had them complete an ecological footprint questionnaire to which they received false feedback – either positive or negative (ie they were told that they consumed fewer resources than most people, or far more resources than most people). Finally, they were given the opportunity to write a letter to their local politician, on any pro-social topic they liked.
For those students for whom the environment was not important to their self-esteem, receiving negative feedback on the ecological footprint questionnaire actually prompted them to be less likely to write to their politician about environmental issues (relative to the students who received positive feedback about their footprint). In other words, for people who aren’t green minded, alarming feedback on a footprint questionnaire can actually make them less sympathetic to green causes. For students whose self-esteem was tied to the environment, negative feedback on the footprint questionnaire had the effect you’d expect, prompting them to be more likely to write to their politician about environmental issues.
‘Ecological and carbon footprints are in widespread use, but the present study suggests that they may fail to promote or even reduce sustainable behaviour for some people,’ Brook wrote. ‘Understanding how to modify footprint feedback to more effectively motivate sustainable behaviour is urgently needed.’
One strategy that might help is to provide practical information alongside footprint feedback, outlining ways to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, thus encouraging people to respond to negative feedback by changing their behaviour, rather than abandoning their green sympathies. Or perhaps, Brook said, ‘the ecological footprint should be targeted to people who are already invested in environmentalism, such as members of environmental groups, and should be used with caution, if at all, with the broader population.’
Brook, A. (2011). Ecological footprint feedback: Motivating or discouraging? Social Influence, 6 (2), 113-128 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2011.566801