Why do some people take it upon themselves to care for the environment – whether by recycling, cutting back on driving, or other methods – while others don't seem to care at all? A recent study by Swedish researchers Anna Olofsson and Susanna Öhman, published in Environment and Behavior, finds that a host of factors are associated with environmental concern among North Americans and Scandinavians – especially their levels of education, political affiliation, and their general beliefs and values.
The researchers' large scale questionnaire and system of categorization involved nearly 5,000 adults from the United States, Canada, Norway, and Sweden. Respondents were categorized according to their gender, age, education, residence type, and political affiliation, as well as their individual beliefs about materialism and individualism vs. social collectivism.
When the results were tabulated, women were shown to have higher environmental concern than men, as were younger adults and those who leaned toward the left politically. Individualists, of which there were more in the U.S. and Canada, expressed less environmental concern than collectivists.
Interestingly, education was found to be the most stable predictor of environmental concern, with a higher education level corresponding to greater concern in all four countries. The gender and age trends were weaker, and left-leaning political affiliation correlated significantly with environmental concern only in Scandinavia.
Taken on their own, these results are mostly what you'd expect. But there's more. As the old adage says, actions speak louder than words – and feeling or expressing concern about the environment doesn't necessarily mean that a person will act on that concern in a concrete way. Olofsson and Öhman noted this distinction and addressed it by adding a measure of environmental behavior to their study. While younger people felt more concern about the environment, questions about the financial sacrifices they would make to benefit the environment and relevant political behavior revealed that older adults were more likely to actually do something about their concern.
Of course, a general increase in financial stability during the life course explains part of this finding. However, there seems to be a strong bystander effect as well. One portion of the study asked participants about their level of resignation toward the environment. The same groups that expressed more environmental concern and behavior – women, collectivists, and those with more education – expressed less resigned attitudes.
Perhaps, then, the secret to saving our environment lies not just in solar powered houses or electric cars, but rather in something psychological: our own level of self-efficacy. While new technologies have the potential to make a difference, they are powerless if we don't use them, and we won't use them if we don't believe in our personal ability to make a difference.
Olofsson, Anna and Öhman, Susanna. General Beliefs and Environmental Concern: Transatlantic Comparisons. Environment and Behavior. November 2006. Vol. 38. Pages 768-791.