Three ancestral traits that drive pro-environmental behavior

Certain human behaviors today reflect hardwired traits that helped our ancestors and their kin over time. Such behaviors provide individual benefit, yet the collective impact of such actions can be detrimental to the environment, creating a situation not unlike the Tragedy of the Commons.

Unfortunately, for green marketers, such individual behaviors are not easily influenced, creating an ever-present headwind that they must contend with. Confronting such behavior directly, such as asking individuals to make different choices because current ones are detrimental to the environment, has not proven very successful for marketers.

Instead, Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie Cantú and Mark Van Vugt, in a recent paper published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, suggest that there are alternative ways to shape such behaviors: Motivate individuals to take more pro-social (and therefore, more eco-friendly) actions by reframing them as having “evolutionary selfish” benefits.

Based on Griskevicius et al., there are at least three social motivations that will drive individuals to alter their behavior in a more pro-environmental way.

1. Social obligation. One ancestral trait that marketers must confront is that individuals promote self interest – or the interest of their kin – over others. Importantly, Griskevicius et al. note that this wasn’t always the case. For example, it is well documented that clans hunted together, generating mutual benefit. For marketers, this provides a window of understanding into how similar behavioral choices can be reframed today in order for individuals to generate positive benefits from collective actions.

One way marketers have tried to motivate individuals to do so is by creating a social obligation. Hoteliers have attempted to do so by offering to make a donation on the behalf of guests if those guests reuse their towels once during their stay. Yet, when behavioral economists tested such messaging, it did not motivate significantly different behavior than traditional messaging.

Recently, economists have tried a different approach. This time, the offer of donation was reframed not as a choice but as a fait accompli. The hotel simply informed guests that a donation had been made on their behalf in exchange for reusing towels. In this case, guests felt more obligated to reciprocate, lifting towel reuse by 26 percent (from Goldstein, Noah J.,Vladas Griskevicius, and Robert B. Cialdini (2012), “Reciprocity by Proxy: Harnessing the Power of Obligation to Foster Cooperation,” Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming, as cited by Griskevicius et al.). For marketers, such reframing has broader applicability when companies can afford to incentivize consumer actions, but cannot track and reward individuals for their specific behaviors.

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