Study: Those most concerned about climate change least likely to take individual action

A year-long study of 600 Americans placed them into three distinct categories—”believers,” “cautiously worried,” and “skeptics”—based on their self-stated level of concern over climate change. Not surprisingly, believers were most likely to support federal policies to address the problem while skeptics were least likely to support such policies. But the researchers also found a result which seemed counter-intuitive. From Pacific Standard:

While policy preferences of group members tracked with their beliefs, their behaviors largely did not: Skeptics reported using public transportation, buying eco-friendly products, and using reusable bags more often than those in the other two categories.

This pattern was found consistently through the year, leading the researchers to conclude that “belief in climate change does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for pro-environmental behavior.”

Hall and his colleagues can only speculate about the reasons for their results. But regarding the concerned but inactive, the psychological phenomenon known as moral licensing is a likely culprit.

Previous research has found doing something altruistic—even buying organic foods—gives us license to engage in selfish activity. We’ve “earned” points in our own mind. So if you’ve pledged some money to Greenpeace, you feel entitled to enjoying the convenience of a plastic bag.

This idea of “moral licensing” is very interesting. That link in the quote above goes to a 2010 story at the Washington Post which has a bit more on the phenomenon:

“We have these internal negotiations going in our heads all day, even if we don’t know it,” said Benoît Monin, a social psychologist who studies moral licensing at Stanford University. “People’s past behavior literally gives them license to do that next thing, which might not be good.”…

From a theoretical perspective, the research has shown that “it’s like we can withdraw from our moral bank accounts,” Monin said. “It’s a lens through which you see the rest of your behavior. But it may not even be conscious.”…

University of Toronto behavioral marketing professor Nina Mazar showed in a recent study that people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. One of Mazar’s experiments invited participants to shop either at online stores that carry mainly green products or mainly conventional products. Then they played a game that allowed them to cheat to make more money. The shoppers from the green store were more dishonest than those at the conventional store, which brought them higher earnings in the game.

The thing that immediately came to mind when I read this story wasn’t Al Gore or Sting or any of the other people preaching about climate change while flying around the world in private jets, the first thing that came to mind was Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein has been accused of sexual assault and rape by dozens of women around the world. And yet, his profile in Hollywood was as an outspoken progressive who had a lot to say about women’s rights. If you had asked him, I’m sure he’d have said he was a male feminist. Meanwhile, he was a monster who made abusing women the center of his lifestyle.

Remember when the first story about Weinstein’s behavior broke, he put out a statement which made a pretty clear connection between his “demons” and his progressive campaigning. Here’s a bit of that:

I so respect all women, and regret what happened. I hope that my actions will speak louder than words and that one day we will all be able to earn their trust and sit down together with Lisa to learn more. Jay Z wrote in 4:44 “I’m not the man I thought I was, and I better be that man for my children.” The same is true for me. I want a second chance in the community, but I know I’ve got work to do to earn it. I have goals that are now priorities. Trust me, this isn’t an overnight process. I’ve been trying to do this for 10 years, and this is a wake-up call. I cannot be more remorseful about the people I hurt, and I plan to do right by all of them.

I am going to need a place to channel that anger, so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the NRA my full attention. I hope Wayne LaPierre will enjoy his retirement party. I’m going to do it at the same I had my Bar Mitzvah. I’m making a movie about our President, perhaps we can make it a joint retirement party. One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC.

At the time, this seemed like a pretty strange juxtaposition of bad behavior and politics, but when viewed in light of “moral licensing” it makes a lot of sense. Weinstein was basically saying ‘look, I took a lot out of the progressive bank account but I’m going to put a lot back in if you let me.‘ A few weeks later, there was a report from Page Six saying Weinstein had concluded he was destined to be a martyr for needed public change. He had realized he wasn’t coming back from this. His career was dead. But even then he was thinking about his situation as a passion play in which he would die to bring change to the world. It was still about moral licensing, just on a much grander scale.

Anyway, that’s just one example but it seems to me this probably applies to a lot of similar cases of hypocrisy in politics, not just with regard to climate change. The study itself is here. You have to pay to read it but the abstract is available and matches the description above.