Ian Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Ian Zimmerman Ph.D.

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Implicit Attitudes Can Help Promote Green Consumer Behavior

Implicit attitudes may better predict green consumption than explicit attitudes.

Posted Jun 18, 2013

One of the most important issues we face today is climate change.  In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded not only are human activities changing the climate, but also that further change is inevitable. As human activity is responsible for climate change, it’s our responsibility to slow or reverse those changes.  To that end, green behaviors are important. As experts on human behavior, psychologists are in a position to make significant contributions to the study and understanding of green behavior, including green consumption behavior. A promising tool in this area is implicit attitudes, and in this post I’m going to discuss their use in the promotion of green consumption.

One problem facing psychologists studying green consumption is what’s called the ‘attitude-behavior gap’. The attitude-behavior gap is a term used to refer to a situation where our attitudes and behavior don’t match. So for example, there are individuals who profess to like green products, but they don’t use those products. Overcoming the attitude-behavior gap is important because attitudes are often used to predict real behaviors. Implicit attitudes may be useful for overcoming the green attitude-green behavior gap (for more information about implicit attitudes, please refer to my previous post entitled “Implicit Attitudes Predict Impulsive Behavior”) because they’re harder to fake. That is, on an implicit attitude test it’s difficult to respond in a dishonest way. This is actually one of the reasons implicit attitude measures were originally developed, because measuring attitudes toward socially sensitive topics (like racism) with surveys leads some individuals to provide responses they think others want to hear. Green behavior may in fact be one of those sensitive topics, as more and more people want to be seen as supporting green behaviors even if they don’t actually engage in them.

Another reason implicit attitudes may be useful for predicting green behavior is they’re more emotional than the attitudes we report on surveys (called explicit attitudes). This may be relevant because green behaviors are more likely to occur when we derive pleasure and satisfaction from them. Conversely, being emotionally attached to environmentally unfriendly behaviors has been associated with dislike for environmental regulations.

Beyond the more theoretical arguments, research has shown implicit attitudes have been more closely associated with green behavior than explicit attitudes. One study found individuals whose implicit attitudes were favorable toward low carbon products paid more attention to climate change images. Explicit attitudes however were unrelated to attention focus. Another study found individuals’ implicit attitudes were more closely associated with their carbon footprint than were their explicit attitudes. A third study found implicit attitudes were better than explicit attitudes at predicting green products individuals chose.

As time goes on being green will become more and more important for our continued survival.  Therefore, identifying tools that most accurately predict green behavior could literally become a matter of life and death. While explicit attitudes have long been valued for their ability to predict behavior, they’re not perfect. To the extent they don’t predict behavior, it’s important to identify other tools that do. Implicit attitudes have shown value in this regard due to their association with green behavior, and that value will likely grow as more and more research in the area utilizes implicit attitudes.