How environmentally friendly am I really? It’s a question we ask ourselves more and more frequently as the climate emergency remains firmly at the top of the political agenda. So we dutifully eschew single-use purchases, lug our tote bags to the supermarket instead of using plastic bags, and take part in Veganuary, safe in the knowledge we’re doing our bit.
But, as it turns out, we may be overestimating how well we’re actually doing at being green. According to new research published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, most of us tend to magnify our own environmental efforts, believing we’re doing more than others even when that isn’t the case. The finding is the latest in a number of studies to demonstrate the “better-than-average” effect: we also believe we are more intelligent than others, for example, and that we work harder.
To examine self-image and environmentalism, author Magnus Bergquist from the University of Gothenburg first asked 2,635 Swedes one question: compared to other Swedes, how often/how much do you engage in pro-environmental behaviours? Participants responded via a 7 point scale, running from 1 (much less than others) to 7 (much more than others).
In a second study, 513 participants located in the UK, India and the United States were asked the same question, rating themselves compared to their own compatriots and their friends. In addition, Indian participants were given an open-ended question about the kinds of pro-environmental behaviour they performed, whilst those in the UK and US were asked how frequently they engaged in 10 predefined behaviours (turning the tap off whilst brushing teeth, for example, or turning lights off when leaving a room).
Both studies suggested that most people perceive themselves to be more pro-environmental than others. In the first study, 51.3% of Swedish participants felt they were more green than others; only 8.6% felt they were below average. The second bore similar results: 75.3% of the total sample felt they were above average (85.7% in India, 72% in the UK, and 63.7% in the US).
Participants also felt that they were better than average when it came to most of the individual behaviours in the survey — but these results might not hold across all pro-environmental behaviours. Most of those listed in survey questions were easy — putting something in the recycling bin, for example, or turning off lights. More difficult pro-environmental behaviour — perhaps making a more fundamental life change like completely overhauling a diet — may not provoke such high self-opinion. Bergquist points to research that suggests people think of themselves as worse than average when tasks appear difficult: one study showed 70% of people felt they could win a trivia contest with easy questions, whilst only 6% felt they could win when things were more tricky.
There was some good news, though. In a final study, Bergquist didn’t find much evidence that believing you are better-than-average prevents you from engaging in pro-environmental behaviours — so the effect may be more psychological than it is practical.
Finding out how we feel about more profound behavioural change could be interesting, as could a more comprehensive study into the impact of under- and overestimation of ability on the way we act — and may also prove to be a good avenue through which to stimulate positive, pro-environmental behaviour.