Laypeople may perceive and characterize proenvironmental behaviors differently than experts; as such, assumptions should not be made about the dimensions underpinning targeted behaviors.
A lot of research within the environmental and conservation sciences is devoted to understanding and encouraging proenvironmental behaviors. What we know less about is how individuals perceive proenvironmental behaviors, which is important for designing behavioral interventions.
A new paper, published in Global Environmental Change, explores laypeople’s perceptions of proenvironmental behaviors, characterizing them based on perceived behavioral attributes. Experts delineate many proenvironmental behaviors into two groups: curtailment and efficiency behaviors. Curtailment behaviors are everyday behaviors that require repeated actions but are low cost to an individual. You likely participated in a number of these actions today- switching off the lights when you left a room, taking public transport or turning off the water faucet while you brushed your teeth. Efficiency behaviors are those infrequent behaviors, such as buying a fuel-efficient car, which some researchers suggest to focus on because of their high impact, one-off nature, increasing costs but decreasing inconvenience. Others behaviors, such as stewardship activities (e.g. planting trees) or environmental activism, do not fit into this categorization.
To examine the dimensions of proenvironmental behaviors the study asked respondents to rate 74 proenvironmental behaviors based on 17 different attributes. The behaviors and attributes were based on findings from a previous qualitative study (also reported in the paper). Behavioral attributes included the frequency of engagement, social influences, knowledge of the behavior, perceived impact, financial costs, and structural influences, among others. They also asked questions pertaining to the likelihood of participating in a specific behavior in the future.
The results suggest that laypeople categorise proenvironmental behaviors differently from experts:
- Curtailment behaviors were not considered an inconvenience by respondents despite being repeated frequently.
- Financial costs, high among many efficiency behaviors, were seen to be the most inconvenient, reinforcing the importance of subsidization programs for prioritized behaviors.
- There were also misperceptions of the environmental impact of behaviors such as turning off the lights. Respondents perceived it to be on par with many efficiency behaviors when in fact its environmental impact is relatively lower.
- Additionally, activist proenvironmental behaviors were seen to be less effective, despite potential high indirect benefits and were discouraged by external pressures, such as friends or family.
- Financial costs had the strongest influence on the likelihood to participate. Social and structural influences were also important factors in consideration of participating in a proenvironmental behavior.
Implementation of behavior change interventions based on assumptions or expert characterization of proenvironmental behaviors may inadequately account for how laypeople perceive these behaviors. This may result in ineffective intervention design.