Review: Motivating Pro-Environmental Behavior with Self Determination Theory

This is a review of “Motivating individuals for social transition: The 2-pathway model and experiential strategies for pro-environmental behaviour”1 by Ute B. Thiermann and William R. Sheate, published 2020 in Ecological Economics. I’ve organized my post in to 5 “levels,” which is my own idea and not the structure of the paper.

Social change is necessary for a sustainable society. But how can we best make this social change? This is the question that the pro-environmental behavior (PEB) area of psychology tries to answer. This paper combines two types of psychological theories to propose a refreshed theory of PEB and strategies to go with it.

Level 1: Hedonistic-Normative

The predominant PEB theories are described as resting on something like goal-framing theory, which says that we have three main goals. In order of typical strength:

  1. Hedonic goal (I instinctively want to feel good, not bad)
  2. Gain goal (I want to improve my lot compared to others)
  3. Normative goal (I want to improve the lot of my group)

The person’s underlying values then determine whether they will pursue PEB, which requires pursuing a normative goal at the expense of hedonic and gain goals (which get lumped together as the “hedonistic”).

Goal frameType of motivationDescriptionStrategy to promote PEB (example)
HedonicIntrinsic, enjoyment-basedI want to feel goodPride/confirmation “warm glow”
GainExtrinsicI want to be better off than othersFinancial incentive
NormativeIntrinsic, obligation-basedI want my group to be better offPersuasion

This hedonistic-normative view is the most influential in PEB theory. Thiermann and Sheate observe that most methods for increasing PEB aim at one of these goals, with increasing interest in reinforcing the normative frame because its bonus effect on the hedonic goal frame. That is, when people follow their normative goals of environmental obligation, or even better, environmental self-identity, they get the warm fuzzies, which also serve hedonic goals. Indeed, research has shown that social and personal norms are very important in changing PEB.

With all this talk of hedonism, a common question might be tickling your brain. Isn’t everything, deep down, hedonistic? Doesn’t that example with the warm fuzzies help show that even normative goals are just hedonism with extra steps? Anticipating this, T&S throw down evolutionary theory of altruism, which shows that altruistic actions draw from a fundamental, non-hedonistic motivation: the “nurturant impulse,” or as we more commonly call it, empathy. This can be illustrated simply: if you see someone about to accidentally rest their hand on a hot stove, you’ll probably instinctively shout a warning, rather than first thinking oh yeah, I’m going to feel like such a good person, and then shouting. T&S also reference another great piece of evidence: we actually feel warmest glow when we act on a low moral responsibility.”3 Hedonistic self-interest fails to explain this, but empathy does.

They further apply Steg’s subdivision of intrinsic motivation, which says that that hedonic goals have enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation4, while normative ones have obligation-based intrinsic motivation. So, the task of reinforcing the normative goal frame means motivating people to do things not out of enjoyment, but obligation. How fun.

Level 2: Self-determination theory (SDT)

The newcomer to PEB now arrives: self determination theory. SDT has a very different, more nuanced view of motivation. The highest-level divider isn’t the goal frame or intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy, but rather a continuum of autonomy ↔ control2.

Autonomous motivation is motivation that comes from a genuine desire to do something. Imagine your “motivation” to do your favorite hobby—it probably comes so easy you hardly need to call it motivation at all. On the opposite end is controlled motivation: being held at gunpoint. There’s a spectrum of motivation: some things aren’t that unpleasant, but you have to make yourself to do them anyway, for yourself (intrinsic) or for other people (extrinsic). It seems obvious that we’d like PEB motivation to be closer to the autonomous side. Is that possible?

Here comes the surprising claim that not only intrinsic motivation, but also certain extrinsic motivation, can be autonomous.

In an environment that is supportive to an individual’s basic needs, some extrinsic motivations also can become fully or partly internalised.

Those three basic psychological needs in SDT are:

  1. Autonomy (I do what I want, because I want to)
  2. Competence (I am effective at what I do)
  3. Relatedness (I feel connected to my community)

This claim is interesting: not just anyone can internalize any new motivation. They have to be in a pretty good psychological place to accept a new, extrinsic motivation. Intuitively, it makes sense. If I feel like I can do what I’m motivated to do, that my actions will make a difference, and I’m connected to the thing it impacts, why not do that thing?

Looking back at our table for the hedonistic-normative view, we see how unnuanced it looks. Why can’t normative goal frames be motivated by a mix of factors intrinsic and extrinsic, obligation-based and enjoyment-based? And we know the “nurturant impulse” is real, intrinsic, and brings enjoyment, but should it really count as hedonism? SDT seems to bring something to the table that the hedonistic-normative view doesn’t: the possibility of internalizing an external motivation and deriving enjoyment from it.

Most importantly, the use of SDT to explain PEB leads to new strategies. But one more thing first: let’s put together the two theories.

Level 3: A 2-pathway model of PEB

Thiermann and Sheate now introduce their 2-pathway model of PEB:

  1. The conventional normative pathway that establishes personal norms from values
  2. The new relational pathway that internalizes socially-transmitted motivation via compassion

Here’s the big diagram from the paper. It’s a little confusing at first, but just notice the thick black arrow (end of pathway 1) and thick green arrow (end of pathway 2).

What makes the relational pathway different from the normative pathway? It uses empathy and compassion to create intentions without having to first create moral obligations (personal norms).

As you can see from all the little green arrows, the paths also share elements, and the relational pathway also benefits the normative pathway. They aren’t two mechanisms existing in different worlds.

There’s on green box we haven’t really discussed yet: connectedness with nature. It’s defined as a state of knowing, feeling, and acting upon an “awareness of the interrelatedness between one’s self and the rest of nature.” T&S highlight that the cognitive side has received more attention than the emotional side in psychology so far. What’s SDT about it is that SDT researchers have argued that “nature connectedness is a basic human psychological need” under the umbrella of Relatedness.

Let’s quickly run through the rest of the pathway. Connectedness with nature leads to empathy with nature, which leads to acts of compassion, which internalizes the pro-environmental motivation, which leads to long-term behavior change.

T&S argue that the relational pathway satisfies the three psychological needs of SDT:

  1. Autonomy: Acting from empathy “conveys an ultimate feeling of autonomy” because sympathetic feelings “cannot be forced by moral obligations or social pressure.” Subtlety: but they can be induced through exposure.
  2. Competence: The “behavioral control” block represents competency, where the psychological need for competence is equivalent to perceiving one has control over something via their behavior.
  3. Relatedness: The “connectedness to nature” is a type of relatedness.

Level 4: Experiential strategies

What new strategies does this model suggest? T&S reiterate that they are concerned with personal transformation, so structural and political strategies are not what we’re looking for. Rather, they propose a “new” category of interventions: experiential strategies, which are “interventions which aim to physically, cognitively, and affectively stimulate meaningful experiences in relation to oneself, others and nature.”

Two cases of experiential strategies are discussed, and examples given.

  1. Nature exposure. Big shocker, being in nature increases pro-environmental behavior.
    • Germany’s state-sponsored ecological volunteering gap year
    • The US’s free national park access for 4th-graders and their families
    • State investment in outdoor recreation
    • Citizen science in environmental science projects
  2. Mindfulness. It is shown to make us better people: more self-transcendental, self-efficient, and compassionate, which all help with the 2-pathway model.
    • Healthcare providers sponsoring mindfulness courses and app access
    • Mindfulness practice training for teachers
    • The Mindfulness Initiative

They note that experiential strategies are a long game, not a quick fix for environmental behavior. This resonates for me, because it seems like we have a lot of long games we need to urgently take on rather than waiting for quick fixes (climate change, for one).

Level 5: Well-being and Eudaimonia

T&S wrap up the paper with a nice section on the implications of their model for eudaimonic well-being, which they are a fan of. They review the application of eudaimonia and virtue ethics to environmental behavior, pointing out that literature tends to focus on the moral aspect of eudaimonia. T&S suggest that the 2-pathway model fills in the relational requirements of eudaimonia—the relations with people and nature that are needed to be truly happy. Thus, they argue that the 2-pathway model is “the only model representing a true eudaimonic interpretation of environmental behaviours.”

This paper calls for the application of a fuller psychological view of human motivation, inclusive of our natural altruistic drive and need for love and connection, towards PEB. The benefits of PEB in this view are not merely for others, but also for the agent, promoting their eudaimonic well-being. In light of this, they recommend experiential strategies for promoting PEB.

To reach an economic system that is based on self-actualisation, society as a whole must realise that by running on the hedonic treadmill in a never-ending pursuit of “happiness” we destroy the very foundation for what we need to live a truly fulfilling life: our capacity to deeply care about others and nature.

I enjoyed this paper. It is thick with references to other interesting work and concepts, many of which I didn’t mention here as not to rewrite their paper. At the same time, a lot of it seems like common sense: we need love and connection, being in nature is good for us, we like caring for others, etc. But society doesn’t always operate on these assumptions. We have the academically legitimized (and misinterpreted) view of humans as “homo economicus” which only recently was usurped in economics by behavioral economics. That’s why it’s important to dig deep into psychological models: to better inform our efforts to achieve good.

Updated 11/12/2021

  1. Thiermann, Ute B., and William R. Sheate. “Motivating Individuals for Social Transition: The 2-Pathway Model and Experiential Strategies for pro-Environmental Behaviour.” Ecological Economics, vol. 174, Aug. 2020, p. 106668. (Crossref),
  2. Ryan, R.M., Deci, E., 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist 55 (1), 68–78.
  3. Erlandsson, A., Jungstrand, A., Västfjäll, D., 2016. Anticipated guilt for not helping and anticipated warm glow for helping are differently impacted by personal responsibility to help. Front. Psychol. 7 (SEP), 1–19.
  4. Steg, L., Lindenberg, P., Keizer, K., 2016. Intrinsic motivation, norms and environmental behaviour: the dynamics of overarching goals. Int. Rev. Environ. Resour. Econ. /9 (1–2), 179–207.

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