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Cameron Brick Ph.D.
Cameron Brick Ph.D.

Beyond the Bystander Effect

Helping others depends on our identities and whether anyone is watching.

Imagine a rural Texan who commutes in an F-150 truck to a distant job in the oil industry. Given the cost of gas, he is considering trading in his truck for a vehicle with better mileage. Take a guess: will he choose a Prius hybrid? It's an economically rational choice. However, the Prius is less popular in rural Texas than hybrids that look like normal cars (Sexton & Sexton, 2011). Emerging research from my lab and other groups suggests that consumers and citizens care about more than just economic utility when considering pro-environmental behaviors such as alternative transportation or conservation. Beyond price signals, people also deeply care about what their choices display about their beliefs, traits, and groups, and these findings show how social influence affects pro-environmental behavior. I'll explain why this research is important, and then tell you about our new study on how people behave when others can see them.

Our biggest environmental problems are no longer issues of knowing what to do. The key barrier is getting people to join the green energy future and transform their behaviors and societies. Individual behaviors are crucial, particularly voting for politicians that prioritize conservation, but household choices also have a large impact. We already have the household technology to slow and reverse catastrophic climate change (Gardner & Stern, 2008). Now we need to make lifestyle changes feel accessible, such as using alternative transportation, eating more plants, and choosing efficient appliances.

We know there’s a problem, we know what to do, and we’re not doing it. Decades of environmental messaging are being met with relative indifference by the public. Even climate scientists and conservation psychologists like me still organize conferences that depend on long-haul flights (Aschwanden, 2015). Despite the increasing threat and severity of climate change, Americans are worrying less about the environment in recent years.

The green energy future is in trouble. We need to appeal to non-environmentalists' existing motivations, not just tell them what to value. One strategy we’re neglecting is using existing identities to spur behavior change. Scientists are beginning to explore social influence, social identities, and how they explain why the truck-driving Texan might be hesitant to choose a car that benefits both his wallet and the climate. Does the Prius signal certain identities? Do individuals really care what groups they appear to be part of? Take a look at this vehicle I saw outside a conference in Austin, TX. The bumper stickers signal valued groups, and critically, notice that this driver carefully signals what he is NOT.

Cameron Brick
Source: Cameron Brick

Along with scientists David Sherman & Heejung Kim, in a new paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology I explored how people might use pro-environmental behaviors to signal valued group memberships (“Green to be seen” and “brown to keep down”: Visibility moderates the effect of identity on pro-environmental behavior; Brick, Sherman, & Kim, 2017).

We know that people in certain groups engage in more pro-environmental behaviors: liberals and environmentalists are more likely to compost, cycle to work, and save water. If a woman considers herself an environmentalist, she’ll be more likely to engage in frequent conservation behaviors than her peers who do not identify with environmentalists.

The main point of the paper was to test whether individuals engage more or less in behaviors based on how visible those actions are to other people. When others see us, we are particularly vigilant about how we behave. We tested whether this would extend to pro-environmental behaviors like saving water and carrying reusable bags.

Daniel Landman, used with permission
Source: Daniel Landman, used with permission

We measured how much people did a wide range of pro-environmental behaviors, and how visible each behavior was to other people. Some behaviors like carrying reusable bags to the grocery are very visible to others. As hypothesized, being watched was associated with more frequent or less frequent behavior depending on the person’s valued group memberships. If the person identified as an environmentalist, being watched was linked to MORE pro-environmental behavior. If a person did not see themselves as an environmentalist—consider the friends and family of the driver whose vehicle is pictured above—then being watched was associated with LESS pro-environmental behavior. Doing green behavior to look good to others is “green to be seen,” and avoiding green behavior to not look like an environmentalist is “brown to keep down.”

Many people might care about the environment and want to help but are repeatedly choosing harmful behaviors in order to fit in. These findings have the potential to explain why people avoid pro-environmental behaviors, even when they value the environment. We must understand social relationships, groups, and contexts. Otherwise, campaigns might fail. For example, imagine you were designing a cloth bag to encourage people to reuse their grocery bags and reduce plastic waste. What do you think about this product?

Emily Caven; Blue Jay Bay, LLC, used with permission
Source: Emily Caven; Blue Jay Bay, LLC, used with permission

The design looks great. It’s well-drawn, clever, and the images of earth and heart are consistent with environmentalist and caring values. However, it may not appeal to everyone. Did you recall that "I'm With Her" was also a popular campaign slogan for Hillary Clinton? Imagine you found this bag on a chair and looked around the room for the owner. What kind of person bought this bag? If you thought of an environmentalist, a hippie, or a woman, you are aware of stereotypes around environmentalism (Bashir et al., 2013). When the goal is to advertise a pro-environmental behavior to NON-environmentalists, we need to consider what group memberships they do not want to signal.

How can we make it easier for non-environmentalists and political conservatives to engage in pro-environmental behavior? One implication of our work is that these individuals may engage more in helpful behaviors when the actions are less visible.

There are exciting opportunities here for reducing climate change, but also for profit and market share. Like building hybrid cars that look like normal sedans, new products such as the Tesla Solar Roof look like a typical product while delivering financial and ecological benefits. At the level of daily behavior, movements like Meatless Mondays and the growth of plant-based diets may be more successful when they distance themselves from stereotypes of liberals, hippies, and activists. How else can we promote and encourage pro-environmental behaviors by making those behaviors less visible and more consistent with existing identities?


Aschwanden, C. (2015, March 26). Nudging Climate Scientists To Follow Their Own Advice On Flying. Retrieved 20 July 2017, from…

Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(7), 614–626.

Brick, C., Sherman, D. K., & Kim, H. S. (2017). “Green to be seen” and “brown to keep down”: Visibility moderates the effect of identity on pro-environmental behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 51, 226–238.

Gardner, G. T., & Stern, P. C. (2008). The short list: The most effective actions U.S. households can take to curb climate change. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 50(5), 12–25.

Sexton, S. E., & Sexton, A. L. (2011). Conspicuous conservation: The Prius effect and willingness to pay for environmental bona fides (No. 29). UC Center for Energy and Environmental Economic Working Paper Series.

About the Author
Cameron Brick Ph.D.

Cameron Brick, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, UK.

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