It’s fine to model sustainable behaviour, just don’t be an asshole about it…”

My friend Bree pointed me to the work of scholar Shahzeen Attari whose research, says her bio, “focuses on people’s judgments and decisions about resource use and systems, and how to motivate action on climate change.”

Her most recent paper, with Gregg Sparkman, in Energy Research & Social Science, is Credibility, communication, and climate change: How lifestyle inconsistency and do-gooder derogation impact decarbonization advocacy and it is a fascinating read on a subject that I’ve been thinking a lot about. The heart of it comes in this sentence at the end of the abstract (emphasis mine):

Overall, these results suggest that advocates, especially experts, are most credible and influential when they adopt many sustainable behaviors in their day-to-day lives, so long as they are not seen as too extreme.

In other words, it’s fine to model sustainable behaviour, just don’t be an asshole about it.

I think about my writing about my cycle to and from Charlottetown Airport last month in this light.

While I undertook the trip as a personal challenge, I wrote about the trip as a way of, I’d hoped, showing others what’s possible, and encouraging them to examine their own climate footprint from transportation.  But what if this had the opposite effect from what I intended? What if it was such an outlandish and practically useless idea that the most common reaction was along the lines of “well, that’s all very well and good, but…” rather than “I could try that”?

In the words of the paper:

Why would seeing advocates practice what they preach backfire? People are frequently drawn to making comparisons to others in order to evaluate oneself. When people evaluate others who perform better than oneself, particularly in moral domains, they may feel negatively about themselves. However, people are highly motivated to maintain a positive view of themselves as moral, competent and contributing members of society and may seek to derogate others, including the do-gooder, to decrease the negative feelings that may arise about themselves. Research finds that people take aim at do-gooders in a range of domains, from eating a vegetarian diet to speaking up against prejudice. Advocates’ efforts may also be harmed by being do-gooders: research has found that when physicians “practice what they preach” and live in a very healthy manner, for instance, their patients may anticipate being negatively judged, and avoid their physician. Thus, advocates who are do-gooders can also be understood as naturally soliciting a form of psychological reactance—a desire to disobey or resist influence from others: marginalizing the do-gooder and their cause offers people a tempting way to maintain a positive self-view and freedom to choose their own actions

While addressing the climate crisis is an effort fought on many fronts, so much of what it takes on a personal level is changing our habits. And that’s a really, really difficult thing to do, even when we’re motivated. And especially when we’re trying to convince others to do likewise. As such, the skills we need to cultivate are as much in the realm of psychology and sociology as they are in infrastructure and economics.

This is not to suggest that modeling sustainable behaviour isn’t helpful, as the paper makes clear in its conclusion:

We find that advocates for decarbonization are more influential when they take action to reduce their personal carbon footprint, including having an energy efficient home, using renewable energy, reducing their meat consumption, and how often they fly. This is especially true of advocates who are experts and less so for non-expert peers. Notably, this does not mean that experts must radically transform every aspect of their lives overnight to be effective. In fact, our work suggests that the advocates with the most exemplary lifestyles do not necessarily fair better (and may even be less effective) than those who take some action. Therefore, it may be helpful for experts to highlight to some substantial pro-environmental behaviors that they do. Overall, our findings suggest using an approach that combines advocacy efforts of experts who carefully consider their own sustainability choices, and non-experts, even those who still have a lot of room for improvement, may serve as effective communicators to help society reach its decarbonization goals.

That’s helpful advice.