FEATURE13 July 2010

Why we aren't as green as we think we are

Why do so many consumers claim to be concerned about the environment, but so few do anything about it?

Psychologist Geoff Beattie has a confession to make: images of polar bears stranded on tiny chunks of ice leave him unmoved.

It was only when one of Beattie’s student challenged him to consider the threat of climate change more seriously that he started to wonder how common his indifference was. This led him to start the research that went into his new book, Why aren’t we saving the planet?

He describes feeling no fear at the prospect of global warming, just “a curious empty feeling inside, accompanied by this genuine intellectual curiosity about how many other people out there were just like me, sitting at their desks murmuring about the need to save the planet… and really deep down inside feeling virtually nothing. That almost produced just a flicker of anxiety; an anxiety about the fact that I clearly wasn’t getting the message… Was I really this uncaring human being who didn’t give a toss about his children or his environment?”

Beattie heads the school of psychological sciences at the University of Manchester, and the study was carried out with the university’s Sustainable Consumption Institute, which was set up in 2007 with £25 million funding from Tesco. Using Implicit Association Tests to unravel the psychology behind environmental attitudes and behaviour, Beattie came to some worrying conclusions.

In these tests participants are confronted with a quickfire stream of images or words on a screen, which they have to categorise as fast as they can. The speed of responses, as well as the responses themselves, can reveal differences between people’s explicit and implicit attitudes, uncovering biases they didn’t know they had. The best-known example displays faces of different ethnicities to study unconscious racial bias. The technique has also been applied to gender and age bias and, now, sustainable consumption.

Outlining the findings to an audience of research and ad agency folk at a recent event organised by Hall & Partners, Beattie said a startling number of people’s implicit attitudes, as revealed through the test, didn’t match the attitudes they thought they held.

“These people are saying ‘I’m very pro-environment,’” he said, “but we’ve got their IAT score, and something absolutely fascinating emerged. We found that a lot of people had an implicit attitude that leaned towards low carbon but we found a lot of people in whom [explicit and implicit attitudes] did not coincide.”

Beattie estimates that between 40% and 50% of people have this conflict in their attitudes to sustainable consumption.

Some of the tell-tale signs lay in body language, he says. Although unable to reproduce any examples at the time because he had recently dislocated his arm, Beattie assured us the mismatches were stark. People would gesture to indicate an imaginary high-carbon product to their left and a low-carbon one to their right, then say ‘Of course, I’d choose the low-carbon one,’ while gesturing the wrong way.

The study also incorporated tricks like offering two different ‘goodie bags’ of supermarket produce – one with high-carbon products and one with low –  and secretly observing which ones people went for.

People seem to have come up with psychological devices “to protect themselves from doing nothing”, said Beattie. “If you want to understand consumer behaviour you need to understand the nature of this weird conflict. What happens to you, to your consumer behaviour, your patterns of consumption, how you live your life, if you’re walking around in this conflicted state?”

A follow-up project is now seeking to link consumers’ attitudes to purchase behaviour using data from Tesco’s Clubcard scheme, analysed by consumer research firm Dunnhumby.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember for now is that “when it comes to climate change, it’s certainly not enough to rely on what people say.”

Why aren’t we saving the planet? by Geoffrey Beattie is published by Routledge and priced at £9.95