Sustainable Behaviour Change Just Got a Tad More Complicated #ICAP2018

This week iCtrlShift attended the 29th International Congress on Applied Psychology (ICAP) in Montreal, QC (check out our twitter page for live tweets!). The conference takes place once every four years and has hundreds of practicing researchers attend from across the globe to share their work. This blog entry summarizes some key take-aways and lessons learned that can be directly applicable for designing sustainability-focused social marketing campaigns.

The most important overall take-away was the inherently complicated characteristics of sustainability messaging. There are all sorts of motivations to nurture – and barriers to overcome – but there are also broader contextual factors to keep in mind for your campaign that can directly inform every aspect of it, from the kinds of language you choose to the collaborations you invest in to the audience targeted. Have a read below and comment if you’ve come across existing campaigns that speak to any of the themes highlighted, or whether these themes make you think twice about your approach to behaviour change!

Our values are on a spectrum

Just because a person cares about sustainability or conservation doesn’t mean these motivations guide their behaviour in a constant or consistent way. Our values are on a spectrum and continually fluctuate as our minds read and respond to various individual and societal factors. Motivations for personal health that led us to a certain breakfast food this morning may not be as influential when choosing transportation for your work commute, nor the decision-making involved in purchasing a new washer/dryer for your home. Of course, we social marketers are well aware of the differences in motivations that must be accounted for when designing a behaviour change campaign – but it might be worth a second look to become better acquainted with just how influential this value spectrum can be, especially for environmentally responsible behaviour.

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Figure depicting universal human values and goals mapped by T. Kasser (2016)[i]

The values above are fundamental motivations for all humans, but they are emphasized by different people in different cultures at different times in different ways. One way these values do seem to overlap is when we are engaging in either self-regarding behaviour or behaviour related to societal and environmental well-being. Individual, self-enhancing values are extrinsic in nature and emphasize the importance of power, control, and success. Values related to societal well-being are intrinsic in nature and emphasize the importance of altruism, cooperation, and community. Most interestingly, when one engages in – or even thinks about – a particular value on the extrinsic, self-enhancing end of the spectrum, a bleed-over effect can take place that makes other extrinsic values more accessible and at the same time closes off the individuals’ ability to consider or engage with intrinsic motivations[ii].

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For example, priming individuals with thoughts or images of money led to increased support of the free-market economy[iii], reduced requests for help, and reduced helpfulness towards others. Relative to participants primed with neutral concepts, participants primed with money preferred to work alone and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance[iv].

Activating a particular set of values can also have a see-saw effect where values that conflict with those being activated become suppressed. The activation of materialistic values has been shown to reduce the amount of money an individual is willing to donate to charity[v], and influenced participants to behave more selfishly in resource dilemmas[vi]. This was one of the most important points raised during an ICAP lecture by psychologist Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism. He warned of the potential in causing an iatrogenic effect in social marketing campaigns by approaching the marketing of sustainability in the same fashion as any other consumer product. An iatrogenic effect is a medical term used to describe an illness resulting from a doctor’s treatment. In the same vein, appealing to extrinsic values such as status or money to sell sustainability may motivate uptake in the short-term, but can be detrimental over the long haul. Extrinsic appeals can include “looking cool”, saving money, providing a “business case” for sustainability, or emphasizing contributions to economic growth.

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Image retrieved here.

These appeals are based on extrinsic, self-interested motivations that, when activated, have been shown to directly undermine concern for people and the environment while simultaneously enhancing related values of power, image, and status. Social marketers need to proceed with great caution when emphasizing the financial benefits of a green behaviour, and instead try to focus on communication tools that promote community well-being and belonging.

Income of the target audience should be factored into campaign design

Conventional economics frame individual consumers as identical, genderless, stagnant beings that have set preferences and all the information we need to make our decisions.

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Image retrieved here.

Observing the diversity of people on your walk to work, and the diversity in products and services available, is more than enough proof to know this is not the case. But if we’re not careful, our sustainability campaigns can serve to entrench rather than eradicate this inappropriate and outdated view of the individual. In this context, one of the most interesting emerging areas of research presented at ICAP was the comparison in environmental motivations between high- and low-income individuals. Most research tends to ignore this pivotal factor which has been shown to directly determine the uptake of a desired behaviour change.

A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that nearly half (42%) of the USA’s national rooftop solar potential is located on the homes of low- to moderate-income households (LMIs)[vii]. While residential adoption of solar has increased overall, adoption by LMIs and providers of affordable housing are not as quick in uptake – and traditional informational campaigns are insufficient for breaching this kind of socio-economic barrier. Could there also be differences in sustainability motivations between high-income and LMIs? Kimberley Woske at the University of Chicago’s Harris School for Public Policy presented some new research (in press) at ICAP investigating this question. She found that while high and low-income consumers tended to express similar motivations for adopting solar (savings on their energy bill), social influences (what is my social group doing?) were a much stronger predictor for low-income uptake compared to high-income. Trust in the messenger is thus a critical factor for behavioural uptake specifically among low-income households, a theme that will be discussed further below. Social marketers should be cautious of the restrictions household income can have on behavioural uptake, and put greater efforts into advocating for regulatory or policy changes that can open many more doors for enthusiastic individuals to take part in environmentally responsible behaviour.

The messenger can be louder than the message

Research also reveals the profound influence the voice endorsing a message can have on perceptions, intentions, attitude, and behavioural uptake – particularly since the single greatest predictor of climate change belief is political ideology[viii] (also see Hoffman’s Six Americas). Kelly Fielding, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, presented some recent work (in press) at ICAP examining whether political endorsement would change the support of a carbon tax among American individuals. While the support of left-leaning Americans remained unaffected, conservative Americans were found to be dramatically more welcome to and supportive of a carbon tax policy when it was endorsed by the Republican Party. Imagine how much further the environmental movement could be with bipartisan support! This intriguing finding brings about some serious questions relating to the kinds of unintended barriers imposed by a campaign’s messaging strategy. Strategic partnerships that cross political ideologies may play a central role in behavioural uptake.

‘Green’ behaviour is inherently gendered

A really interesting dynamic that came out of the ICAP conference was the inherently gendered nature of the environment, and sustainable behaviour more generally. Researchers find that certain actions carry heavily gendered stereotypes which can directly predict which individuals engage in the behaviour, and how those individuals are subsequently perceived and engaged with. For example, housework such as laundry, cooking, or cleaning – all actions with huge environmental footprints – is stereotypically perceived as feminine[ix].

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Stereotypically masculine environmental behaviours include car or house repairs and conservation efforts that protect hunting. These gendered associations can influence both attitudes toward and uptake of an environmental behaviour, so social marketing campaigns should be more aware of the dynamics at play. For example, studies show how individuals might avoid certain sustainable behaviours for fear of threatening their identity[x] or for being labeled as homosexual[xi].

People also tend to avoid and outcast individuals engaging in socially stigmatized behaviour for fear of being associated with that person and thus being excluded from the social group, a phenomenon known as stigma-by-association[xii].  Ash Gillis in collaboration with Janet Swim at Pennsylvania State University presented some new research (in press) at ICAP which asked experiment participants to provide their preferences on discussion topics and partners. Written descriptions of four potential discussion partners were presented – a male and female interested in environmental topics that were respectively masculine and feminine, and a male and female interested in environmental topics that conflicted with the gendered stereotypes. Overall, participating individuals (both male and female) least preferred the female discussion partner interested in engaging in stereotypically masculine environmental behaviours and most preferred female discussion partners when contemplating stereotypically feminine behaviours.

The gendered dynamics of behaviour play an enormous role in the cohesion of social groups. One of our biggest social drivers is being included and liked by our social group – this drive is a hard-wired evolutionary motivator essential for survival as hunter-gatherers; belonging to a group reduced our chances of being eaten! As such, engaging in behaviours our group is unfamiliar with or has collectively stigmatized can quickly lead one to social suicide. Discrimination, prejudice, and social exclusion are quick, painful, but nonetheless real group responses to perceived differences.

But there is so much more to the gender story. Campaigns focusing on a specific behaviour are often blind to the gendered distribution of uptake. A messaging strategy aimed at household water use has direct consequences on the stress of household chores for which women are predominantly responsible. The Pew Research Center found that a significant gender gap continues to exist in the roles and responsibilities of household labour. In a survey of American parents[xiii], mothers were found to take on more of the responsibility for parenting tasks and household chores even though fathers were 10% more likely to say domestic chores are shared equally.

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More recent research by Bright Horizons Family Solutions showed that even the mental resources (known as the mental load) needed for organizing and coordinating household duties like school drop-offs, grocery and gas runs, doctors appointments, etc. are disproportionately managed by the female members of a household[xiv]. Social marketing practitioners need to do more to recognize how these stereotypes play out and how to curtail these gendered realities through more inclusive and empowering messaging strategies.

As social marketers we should be thinking more strategically about the broader social context before carrying out a behaviour change campaign and do our due diligence in finding language and targeted behaviours that can transcend potentially hidden barriers to uptake. I hope this short list of a few topics of interest got you thinking about new and innovative approaches to take on in your next project!

Sophia SannittiSophia Sanniti is currently completing a PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. She is an academic partner of the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research project and VP of Programs for the Canadian Society of Ecological Economics (CANSEE). Connect with her on LinkedIn.

[i] Kasser, T. (2016). Materialistic Values and Goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 489-514.

[ii] Maio GR, Pakizeh A, Cheung W-Y, Rees KJ. 2009. Changing, priming, and acting on values: effects via motivational relations in a circular model. Journal of Personal Social Psychology 97, 699–715.

[iii] Caruso, E. M., Vohs, K. D., Baxter, B., & Waytz, A. (2013). Mere exposure to money increases endorsement of free-market systems and social inequality. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(2), 301–6.

[iv] Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2008). Merely Activating the Concept of Money Changes Personal and Interpersonal Behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), 208–212.

[v] Wierzbicki J, Zawadzka AM. 2014. The effects of the activation of money and credit card versus that of activation of spirituality—which one prompts pro-social behaviours? Current Psychology 35(3), 344-353.

[vi] Bauer M, Wilkie JEB, Kim JK, Bodenhausen GV. (2012). Cuing consumerism: Situational materialism undermines personal and social well-being. Psychol. Sci. 23, 517–23.

[vii] Sigrin, Ben, and Mooney, Meghan. 2018. Rooftop Solar Technical Potential for Low-to-Moderate Income Households in the United States. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL/TP-6A20- 70901.

[viii] Hornsey, M.J., Harris, E.A., Bain, P.G. and Fielding, K.S. (2016). Meta-analysis of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change. Nature Climate Change, 6, 622-26.

[ix] Brough, A. R., Wilkie, J. E. B., Ma, J., Isaac, M. S., & Gal, D. (2016). Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 43(4), 567–582.

[x] Rudman, L. A., & Fairchild, K. (2004). Reactions to counterstereotypic behavior: the role of backlash in cultural stereotype maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 157–176.

[xi] Bosson, J. K., Taylor, J. N., & Prewitt-Freilino, J. L. (2006). Gender-role violations and identity misclassification: The roles of audience and actor variables. Sex Roles, 55(1–2), 13–24.

[xii] Pryor, J. B., Reeder, G. D., & Monroe, A. E. (2012). The infection of bad company: Stigma by association. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (2), 224–241.

[xiii] Pew Research Centre (2015). Raising Kids and Running a Household: How working parents share the load. Accessed online at:

[xiv] Bright Horizons Family Solutions LLC (2017). Modern Family Index 2017: New Research: ‘Mental Load’ Felt by Mothers is Real and having a Significant Impact at Home and at Work. Accessed online at


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