Among the many tools available to policy to foster environmental actions among its citizens, behavioural interventions are now gaining momentum. Policy makers need nevertheless to be cautious in designing such policies, because combining different interventions may lead to opposite effects to the ones intended.

In this article, published in Frontiers of Psychology, the team of Italian researchers aimed to understand how reminding individuals of previous pro-environmental behaviours (in psychology, this is called priming self-identity – for instance: you are reminded that you have the habit to recycle) can influence future ones. 

To do so, the researchers conducted two different experiments, one where they combined priming with social information and the second one where priming was combined with goal commitment. Social information means informing the individual on how other peers typically perform on the same type of actions while goal commitment informs how this same action contributes to the achievement of an overarching goal.

In both studies, the researchers did not find any positive spillovers towards future environmental behaviors. Nevertheless, they find that priming combined with social information allows to offset negative spillovers.

Abstract

Environmental self-identity is considered a promising lever to generate positive spillovers across pro-environmental behaviors: existing evidence shows that it is positively correlated with pro-environmental choices and that it can be easily manipulated, by reminding individuals of their past pro-environmental actions. However, it remains unclear whether it can be successfully used for environmental policy making. In two online, incentive-compatible experiments, we manipulate participants’ environmental self-identity and test whether this leads to increased donations to an environmental charity. Additionally, we investigate the interaction between self-identity priming and two commonly used behavioral policy tools: social information (Study 1, N = 400) and goal commitment (Study 2, N = 495). Our results suggest caution in leveraging environmental self-identity to promote pro-environmental behaviors, provide indications on how to target policies based on self-identity primes, and offer novel evidence on the interaction between different behavioral policy tools.