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No. 32.1.


Pro-Environmental Behaviour: Situational Barriers
and Concern for the Good at Stake

Chris von Borgstede and Anders Biel1
Department of Psychology
University of Göteborg

von Borgstede, C., & Biel, A. Pro-environmental behavior: Situational
barriers and concern for the good at stake. Göteborg Psychological
Reports, 2002, 32, No. 1. With the aim of investigating factors
affecting willingness to act environmentally friendly in a social
dilemma framework, a survey was undertaken among 1000 employees
at Göteborg University. Saliency of personal norms and social norms
were measured as well as level of behavioural difficulty,
environmental citizenship and expectation about others’ behaviour. It
was hypothesised that these factors would be important determinants
of environmentally friendly behaviour. Furthermore, situational
barriers were expected to affect willingness to act for the collective.
Results showed that respondents co-operated more frequently in
situations with fewer obstacles to overcome. Also, as hypothesised,
more colleagues were expected to co-operate under easy rather than
difficult conditions. Both social and personal norms were stronger in
situations were co-operation called for less of a sacrifice. Finally,
environmental citizenship had an effect only in situations were co-
operation was harder to establish.

Key words: Pro-environmental behaviour, social norms, personal
norms, situational barriers, environmental citizenship.

Many environmental problems have the structure of a social dilemma, namely a
conflict between private interests and the interests of the collective at large (Dawes,
1980). One example of an environmental everyday social dilemma that has often been
referred to is whether to commute by car or by public transport. Here each person is
better off going by car since he or she will have a more comfortable and a faster
journey. However, if many people take their car air pollution and traffic jams will
accrue to everyone. Another example of an environmental everyday social dilemma is
whether people choose to recycle or not. To act in line with private interests will in
this case be to not recycle, since recycling comprises an extra cost for the individual
in terms of sorting out the waste and transport it to a recycling station. The co-
operative choice, in this case to recycle household waste, implies that an individual
accepts some sacrifice in order to avoid long-term negative consequences.
The underlying cause of the depletion of natural resources in a large-scale social
dilemma is the unrestricted access to natural resources – either renewable or non-
renewable – that people have (Gardner & Stern, 1996). This applies to resources such
Autor Note: This research was financially supported by grant # 99012:1 from the Swedish Council
for Planning an Co-ordination of Research to the second author.

are termed personal . 2000). mental awareness when about to throw a paper away. Experimental research has generate several important findings in this respect. 1992). No. social interdependency is not always salient. Social norms that have been internalised. During the last decades there has been an extensive research on social dilemmas. 1995. In certain cases this could be quite easily done while in others it takes more effort. clean air. but perhaps also more of personal convenience to give up. However. 2 as electricity. Messick. oil. This suggests that more people will cooperate in some environmental dilemmas than in others. 32. If there are reasons to believe that others will co-operate one is more likely to do so oneself. the main interest being under what conditions people act in a pro-social manner. The easier a behavioural change seems to be the more likely people are to start acting for the common good. Situational factors It is important to note that in many of these dilemmas people do things as they always have done without deliberating all possible outcomes or negative long-term consequences. and vice versa (de Vries & Wilke. 1980). both in terms of situational and individual factors (for reviews see Komorita & Parks. Not only is more of planning involved. Eek. To act in accordance with the collective demands (at least some) knowledge about the interdependency in the situation is called for. To change such habits people have to reflect upon their present behaviour and overcome certain obstacles during the process of behavioural change (Dahlstrand & Biel. Van Lange. Individual factors Norms are generally defined as an expectation held by an individual about how he or she ought to act in a particular social situation (Schwartz. 1997). Previous research has shown that expectation about others’ behaviour and own behaviour interacts. This suggests that emphasising the nature of the social dilemma promotes pro-social behaviour in favour for the collective (e. g. & Wilke. etc. Liebrand. Some of these factors with bearing on the present study are introduced below. to switch from commuting by car to commuting by public transport seems more difficult. However. Yet another factor that has been shown to affect co-operation is whether people have a reason to expect that others also are prepared to act for the common good or not (Dawes. water. 1977). The norm provides an impetus for proper behaviour and the individual needs not deliberate about consequences. Biel.1. as long as recycling is not automated. 1992. What complicates the matter is that when individuals decide whether to cooperate or not. All it takes is a new bin and. and gain strength from personal conscience rather than from what others may expect. 1998).. without such understanding of the conflict at hand it is not clear that one is confronted with a choice whether to cooperate or defect. To start recycling paper shouldn’t be too difficult. Co-operative actions are only rational in terms of solutions to the social dilemma problem if a sufficient number of others are willing to co-operative as well.

If people perceive that a social norm for proper behaviour exists. they may be less willing to co-operate themselves. support for environmentalism could contribute to people’s co- operative tendencies in situations where environmental values are at stake (Garvill. people are not always prepared to abide by the norm. 3 norms (Schwartz. that . Evidently. Hurin. In situations with fewer obstacles to overcome. This idea was partly supported in a study by Oskamp. Dietz. However. individual differences could be of profound importance. In previous studies (Biel. Furthermore. 1999). they may be more prepared to overcome situational barriers than if they care less about the environment. 1977). & Kalof. Guagnano. Burkhardt. On the other hand Oskamp et al. people are in general “rule” followers. people differ with regard to how they interpret a situation and how they decide to act. This moral imperative had two faces. 1999) of large-scale environmental dilemmas. An internalised. Related to the context principle. Biel. Furthermore. One indicator of environmentalism is environmental citizenship. First. & Dahlstrand. people have an interest to abide by the rule. 1999. (1998) did find a positive correlation between environmental concern and to what extent people recycled. people may be less hesitant to support the common good while defection is more prevalent in situations that call for sacrifices. von Borgstede. when a specific behaviour is perceived as easy to perform there is less need for a strong environmental citizenship to motivate a behavioural change. Similar findings were reported in a recent study (Corraliza & Berenguer. 1999). & Dahlstrand. Schultz. In the latter case. 1992). Once internalised. the moral imperative was perceived as quite strong in some dilemmas while in others it was more or less absent. such a norm will imply that many people are prepared to perform this behaviour (Van Lange et al. a social and a personal. They infer social rules by observing others and once learned. 2000) where pro-environmental behaviour was determined by environmental values and attitudes. the situation could be seen as a collective problem and evoke thoughts about how “we should respond”. which refers to support and acceptance of public policies that may require material sacrifice in order to reach environmental goals (Stern. No. A strong sense of environmental citizenship may help people to overcome potential barriers to environmentally benign behaviour. Finally. von Borgstede. Social norms could serve as a heuristic to overcome social uncertainty. Abel. Situational barriers may also hamper co-operation. though.1. However. Interaction between situational and individual factors As was suggested by Messick (1999) three principles are to be acknowledged when analysing behaviour in real-world social dilemmas. To the extent that people place a value on environment and show environmental concern. environmental concern can motivate people to put in an extra effort. the norm guides the way an individual selects action. behaviour in a social situation is context dependent. People perceive and interpret the appropriateness: what kind of situation is this? Next. 32. personal norm provides a rule about proper behaviour.. & Zelenzy (1998). Environmental concern had no relationship with whether people recycled or not. inhibitory and facilitory situational conditions also affected environmental behaviour. If there are reasons to believe that others will defect.

No. However. The social norm expresses what people in general ought to do in a particular situation.1. The personal norm represents an internalised social norm and implies feelings of personal obligation. four items of the construct Environmental Citizenship (Stern et al. and in line with Stern et al. donated money to an environmental group or organisation. not only is a higher degree of co- operation anticipated (hypothesis 1). there is a fair chance that respondents had a shared view about both how others behaved and how easy. several factors that in previous social dilemma research have been shown to affect behaviour are assumed to be forceful in everyday environmental settings. In this way. the moral imperative was strongly correlated with pro-environmental behaviour. One item asked for membership in environmental groups or organisations. there is room for variation in individual factors such as personal norm and environmental concern. 1998) were included. This suggestion is followed up in the present study. However. ranging from 0 (a no response on all four items) to 4 (yes on all) was included in the analyses below. and participated in an environmental protest action. Hence. 32. the questionnaire addressed the same behaviours for all respondents. to the extent that co-operation is more easily fulfilled. it is to perform a specific behaviour. Furthermore. Next. their strength is expected to vary with situational conditions. At the same time expectations that others will co-operate will also be higher than if inhibitory conditions are strong (hypothesis 2). At the same time. our final hypothesis (4) is that environmental citizenship will only have a unique effect on behaviour in more demanding situations. Biel et al. A yes/no response format was used for all four items. when situational conditions form an obstacle to co-operation. 4 were strongly correlated. (1999) suggested that situational conditions accounted for this variation in norm strength. Method Questionnaire As an indicator on respondents’ commitment to the environment. Furthermore.. stronger environmental values and concern for the good at stake could help people to overcome barriers. or difficult. Respondents were sampled from the same organisation. what others are expected to do. To summarise. people will feel a stronger moral imperative to co-operate than if situational barriers are high (hypothesis 3). these three hypotheses imply that when barriers are low the situation specific factors perceived difficulty to perform a certain behaviour. The more people experience that they have to forsake something in order to co-operate. Taken together. In situations where inhibitory conditions are weak. A composed measure of Environmental citizenship. (1999). respondents indicated whether they during the last five years had signed an environmental appeal. . the less likely it is that prescriptive norms will evolve. and what I and others ought to do in this situation will account for involvement in pro-environmental behaviour. Furthermore.

usable questionnaires were obtained from 665 respondents. which department they belonged to. After 4 weeks those who had not yet responded were sent a combined reminder and gratitude letter.4). 5 Part of the questionnaire pertained to respondents’ own place of work. These employees represented seven different disciplines and included both teachers/scientists and staff from personnel administration. Each action was rated on a 4-point scale ranging from Never to Always. About half. Result Among the seven work-related activities. gender. respectively. recycle paper (M = 1. questions were asked about age. and which kind of employment they had at their department (teacher/researcher or technical/administrative). Procedure The questionnaire was mailed to the sample of respondents along with a stamped return envelope. Environmental behaviour was tapped by how often they took pains with seven different actions: copy double-sided. However. The strength of Social and Personal norm were tapped by the questions: “Do you think that others’ in your work place think they ought to do following:” and “Do you think that you ought to do following:”. three were regarded as more easy to perform. participants must have had the opportunity to perform each behaviour in their daily work environment. This left us with 215 participants. with a mean age of 46 years. to be included in the analyses. After one reminder. and A larger part. Respondents A sample of 1000 employees at Göteborg University in Sweden participated in the study. 32. recycle papers. Finally. instead of travelling to a business meeting arrange a telephone or video-conference. These activities were to copy double-sided (M = 1. Obstacles or the degree of difficulty or easiness to carry out each action was also measured on 5-point scales ranging from Very difficult to Very easy. 34% being female. and turn off the computer screen while not in use (M = 1.9). These evaluations were made on 5-point scales ranging from Absolutely not to Absolutely.1. not choose to go by air on a business journey. No. Four of the .5). varying from 19 to 65 years of age. turn off the computer screen when not in use. A fifth option was that an action was not relevant as far as they were concerned. incorporate environmental issues in their teaching and in their research. All behaviours were also measured with regard to Expectations about others’ behaviour. Judgements were provided on 5-point scales ranging from Hardly anybody to Almost everyone with the intermediate steps A smaller part. followed by the same seven actions as above.

06 . Social norm. the means are in the predicted direction. direct their research toward environmental issues (M = 3.96** Social norm 3.1).96 197 16.01 186 16. one for each group of situations.21 . not to go by aeroplane on business journey (M = 3. As can be seen in Table 1. 32.26 1. Table 2 presents results from these analyses. and personal norm were rated on 5- point scales while own behaviour was measured on a 4-point scale. namely to arrange telephone and videoconferences (M = 3.83 209 3.55 . Easy (first three) and Difficult (last four). to separate regression analyses were performed.02 .71 212 18. and perceived obstacles. The explanatory variables were factors more closely knit to the situation at hand. personal norm. and in line with hypothesis 1. No.01 . Furthermore. According to the final hypothesis.65 210 3. introduce environmental topics in their teaching (M = 2. Table 1 Mean Ratings of Perceived Difficulty.41** Own Behaviour 3. Personal norm and Willingness to Act Pro-Environmentally in Easy and Difficult Situations.70 .59 215 2. more colleagues were expected to co-operate under easy than difficult conditions. Turning to our fourth and final hypothesis. environmental citizenship only had an effect in situations where co-operation was harder to . Situation Easy Difficult Variables M SD n M SD n t Obstaclesa 1.8) and. show that behaviours predicted to be easier to perform indeed were perceived as less arduous. The factors that more closely related to the specific situation all had an impact on co-operation in both kinds of situation.0).1. 6 activities were considered more difficult to comply with. In the following analyses these behaviours were grouped into two. ** p<0.71** Personal norm 4.16 .18** Others’ behaviour 3.94 183 -21. Others’ behaviour.07** a Note. namely expectations about others' behaviour. respondents co-operated more frequently in situations where there were fewer obstacles to overcome. social norm. Obstacles. finally. others’ behaviour.60 213 2. Furthermore. that co-operation is mainly shaped within the situation when the behaviour is easy to perform while personal concern for the resource of immediate interest strengthens co-operation in “difficult” situations.69 215 20.85 .01 Also as hypothesised. both social and personal norms were expected to be stronger in situations where co-operation calls for less of a sacrifice. Descriptive statistics. respectively.4). and the more general factor environmental citizenship. displayed in Table 1.88 186 2.61 .

62** Personal norm .86 .33 5. as compared to the more difficult. and co- operation rate was higher.57** Others’ behaviour .17 -2.18** . Situation Easy Difficult Independent variable r ß t r ß t Obstacles -. Taken together. Discussion In the present study a social dilemma approach to everyday environmental behaviour was adopted.01. there were also differences between those activities that were easy and those that were difficult to comply with.001 (Easy) R2adj = . While this picture was similar for both groups of activities. The same was true for moral norms in that a personal obligation to perform a behaviour was positively associated with the execution of the behaviour in question.31 4. The weak correlation between environmental citizenship and own behaviour in easy situations reinforces this conclusion.02** . 187) = 31.52** . these two differences indicate that co-operation is variously shaped .65. No. 151) = 74. Table 2 Summary of Separate Simultaneous Regression Analyses on Willingness to Co- operate in Easy and Difficult situations.05. p < 0.60* -. ** p < 0. it had a significant effect on difficult activities.43 -6.58** .72** -. While environmental citizenship was almost unrelated to the performance of easy activities.54** .14 2. Employees who perceived impediments to pro-environmental behaviour were less likely to co-operate than those who downplayed situational barriers.39.73** . The other difference concerns the impact of environmental citizenship on behaviour. F(4.12 1. instrumental consequences were also of importance.39** .08** . respectively. 32. especially in those situations where a co-operative act demanded less effort. 7 establish.50. For the easy activities.32 5.47** -. At the same time.94* Environmental citizenship .001 (Difficult) * p < 0.05 .30. One difference relates to the level of the ratings of these factors.1. p < 0. F(4.66** R2adj = . social and personal norms were stronger. Corroborating earlier findings expectations that others will not defect had a strong impact on pro-environmental behaviour. a larger proportion of the colleagues were expected to co-operate.

they abide by the rule or norm for proper behaviour on the assumption that behavioural changes are less demanding. Co-operation is established within the social context and can be quite prevailing. co- operation in a more demanding situation is not only affected by situational factors but also by a personal value system. If people are not prepared to perform a certain behaviour themselves. however. Behavioural modifications could also be facilitated if people place a greater weight on environmental values. a change in value priorities in organisations or in society may take time to come about. Furthermore.1. Much could be done by emphasising the nature of the social dilemma and highlight the social interdependency between group members. that the management takes an active part in promoting environmental behaviour may be of profound importance. To bring forth a co-operative behaviour in situations where barriers to change are weak should not be too difficult. People seem to acknowledge that solutions to environmental problems require collective action. Hence. In conclusion. These results are in accordance with the three principles proposed by Messick (1999). barriers to change can be removed if people priority values that are associated with the good and issue at hand. No. Do people trust that others will co-operate because they themselves have internalised a norm about proper behaviour? Or are norms established because a larger share of the organisation starts to perform a new behaviour? Furthermore. the nature of barriers to behavioural change was not investigated in the present study. Some limitations of the present research must be addressed. In more trying situations the feasibility of structural changes and technical innovations could be explored. However. To what extent results generalise to other settings and different behaviours must be investigated in future research. fewer co-operate when there are more obstacles to overcome. the present findings may have some practical implications for the management of environmental dilemmas in organisational settings. individual differences in environmental concern might determine whether or not people are likely to engage in environmentally responsible behaviour. The study is confined to one particular organisation and includes a restricted sample of behaviours. Here. Such knowledge is important for intervention strategies. . norms for environmentally benign behaviour may not develop. When barriers to change are more pronounced. Not unexpectedly. under conditions where people experience that a behavioural change implies self-sacrifice. Finally. they are probably less likely to sanction others for not carrying it out. people trust that others will co-operate and they take on an obligation to do the same themselves. 32. 8 depending on perceived costs for a pro-social behaviour. For instance. If they trust others to co-operate. A second limitation is that data are correlational and we know little about how important factors interplay in shaping a pro-environmental behaviour. In situations where barriers to co-operation are low. the possibility to promote a norm for environmentally friendly behaviour should be utilised.

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