Environment Systems and Decisions

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 184–197 | Cite as

Social signals and sustainability: ambiguity about motivations can affect status perceptions of efficiency and curtailment behaviors

  • Matheus De Nardo
  • Jeremy S. BrooksEmail author
  • Sonja Klinsky
  • Charlie Wilson


Perceived status can affect the diffusion of pro-environmental behaviors and sustainable consumption. However, the status of different forms of sustainable consumption has not been adequately explored. Previous studies suggest that curtailment behaviors are associated with low or neutral status, while efficiency behaviors are associated with high status. However, these studies have generally examined a small number of behaviors. Drawing from costly signaling theory, we developed a mixed methods study to explore whether and why pro-environmental behaviors are perceived to be associated with high or low status, the perceived motivation for those behaviors, and the relationship between motivation and status. We conducted structured, interactive interviews with 71 participants to explore perceptions of 19 behaviors. Using quantitative and qualitative analyses, we find that efficiency is rated higher status than curtailment largely due to monetary considerations. Efficiency is also perceived to be motivated by environmental concern to a greater degree than curtailment. Understanding the motivation for behaviors clarifies the social signal because it provides insights into whether one is incurring personal costs. Importantly, it is often unclear whether low-cost curtailment behaviors are adopted by choice rather than financial need. Ambiguity about the intentionality of behaviors results in such behaviors being perceived as lower status. Those who argue that curtailment will be necessary for long-term sustainability must address status perceptions because social stigmas could hinder their adoption. Overcoming such stigmas may require, indicating that curtailment behaviors are voluntary, but it may be more effective to use social or economic mechanisms to increase efficiency behaviors.


Sustainable consumption Prosocial behavior Environmental motivation Pro-environmental behavior Overconsumption Diffusion 



We thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments as well as Ellen Eilers, Hugh Walpole, James Ryan, and Ian Adams for assistance with data collection and coding. This study was funded by the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and a small grant from the Decision Sciences Collaborative at the Ohio State University.

Supplementary material

10669_2017_9624_MOESM1_ESM.doc (68 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 68 kb)


  1. Ariely D, Bracha A, Meier S (2009) Doing good or doing well? Image motivation and monetary incentives in behaving prosocially. Am Econ Rev 99:544–555CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Attari SZ, DeKay ML, Davidson CI, de Bruine WB (2010) Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. Proc Natl Acad Sci 107:16054–16059CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barrett LF, Mequita B, Gendron M (2011) Context in emotion perception. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 20:286–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Belleza S, Gino F, Keinan A (2014) The red sneakers effect: inferring status and competence from signals of nonconformity. J Consum Res 41:35–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berger J, Ward M (2010) Subtle signals of inconspicuous consumption. J Consum Res 37:555–569CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bliege Bird R, Smith EA (2005) Signaling theory, strategic interaction, and symbolic capital. Curr Anthropol 46:221–248CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bourdieu P (1986) The forms of capital. In: Richardson J (ed) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. Greenwood Press, WestportGoogle Scholar
  8. Brooks JS, Wilson C (2015) The influence of contextual cues on the perceived status of consumption-reducing behavior. Ecol Econ 117:108–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cohen GL, Prinstein MJ (2006) Peer contagion of aggression and health-risk behavior among adolescent males: an experimental investigation of effects on public conduct and private attitudes. Child Dev 77:967–983CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cronk L (2005) The application of animal signaling theory to human phenomena: some thoughts and clarifications. Soc Sci Inf 44:603–620CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dastrup SR, Zivin JG, Costa DL, Kahn ME (2012) Understanding the solar home price premium: electricity generation and green social status. Eur Econ Rev 56:961–973Google Scholar
  12. Delgado MS, Harriger JL, Khanna N (2015) The value of environmental status signaling. Ecol Econ 111:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dietz T, Gardner GT, Gilligan J, Stern PC, Vandenbergh MP (2009) Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106:18452–18456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Franzen A, Vogl D (2013) Two decades of measuring environmental attitudes: a comparative analysis of 33 countries. Glob Environ Change 23(5):1001–1008CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gintis H, Smith EA, Bowles S (2001) Costly signaling and cooperation. J Theor Biol 213:103–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Goldman I (1999) Q-methodology as process and context in interpretivism, communication, and psychoanalytic psychotherapy research. Psychol Rec 49:589–604Google Scholar
  17. Griskevicius V, Tybur JM, Van den Bergh B (2010) Going green to be seen: status, reputation, and conspicuous conservation. J Pers Soc Psychol 98:392–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hardy CL, van Vugt M (2006) Nice guys finish first: the competitive altruism hypothesis. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 32:1402–1413CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Heffetz O, Frank RH (2008) Preferences for status: evidence and economic implications. Johnson School Research Paper Series #05-09, pp 1–38Google Scholar
  20. Henrich J (2009) The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion: credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution. Evol Hum Behav 30:244–260Google Scholar
  21. Henrich J, Gil-White FJ (2001) The evolution of prestige: freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing benefits of cultural transmission. Evol Hum Behav 22:165–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hirsch F (1976) Social limits to growth. Harvard University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jackson T (2009) Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet. Earthscan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Jackson, T, Michaelis L (2003) Policies for sustainable consumption. A report for the UK Sustainable Development Commission, London. Retrieved from:
  25. Jansson J, Marell A, Nordlund A (2010) Green consumer behavior: determinants of curtailment and eco-innovation adoption. J Consum Mark 27:358–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jenkins J, Nordhaus T, Shellenberger M (2011) Energy emergence: rebound and backfire as emergent phenomena. Breakthrough Institute. Accessed 15 Apr 2014
  27. Johansson-Stenman O, Martinsson P (2006) Honestly, why are you driving a BMW? J Econ Behav Organ 60:129–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Karlin B, Davis N, Sanguinetti A, Gamble K, Kirkby D, Stokols D (2014) Dimensions of conservation: exploring differences among energy behaviors. Environ Behav 46:423–452CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Khomani N (2015) From Beyonce to the Baftas, vegan culture gets star status. The Guardian, LondonGoogle Scholar
  30. Landis JR, Koch CG (1977) The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data. Biometrics 33:159–174CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. McKeown B, Thomas D (1988) Quantitative applications in the social sciences: Q methodology. SAGE, Thousand OaksGoogle Scholar
  32. Meadows DH, Randers J, Meadows D (2004) Limits to growth: the 30-year update. Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River JunctionGoogle Scholar
  33. Myers N, Kent J (2004) The new consumers: the influence of affluence on the environment. Island Press, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  34. Richerson PJ, Boyd R (2005) Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  35. Sadalla EK, Krull JL (1995) Self-presentational barriers to resource conservation. Environ Behav 27:328–353CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sexton SE, Sexton AL (2014) Conspicuous conservation: the Prius halo and willingness to pay for environmental bona fides. J Environ Econ Manag 67:303–317Google Scholar
  37. Skyrms B (2010) Signals: evolution, learning, and information. Oxford University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Smaldino P, Flamson TJ, McElreath R (2015) Evolution of cooperation via covert signaling. Accessed 10 Dec 2015
  39. Speth JG (2012) American passage: towards a new economy and a new politics. Ecol Econ 84:181–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Steg L, Vlek C (2009) Encouraging pro-environmental behavior: an integrative review and research agenda. J Environ Psychol 29:309–317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Stern PC (2000) Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. J Soc Issues 56:407–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Sühlsen K, Hisschemöller M (2014) Lobbying the ‘Energiewende’. Assessing the effectiveness of strategies to promote the renewable energy business in Germany. Energy Policy 69:316–325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sütterlin B, Siegrist M (2014) The reliance on symbolically significant behavioral attributes when judging energy consumption behaviors. J Environ Psychol 40:259–272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Van den Bulte C, Stremersch S (2004) Social contagion and income heterogeneity in new product diffusion: a meta-analytic test. Mark Sci 23:530–544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. van Vugt M, Roberts G, Hardy C (2007) Competitive altruism: development of reputation-based cooperation in groups. In: Dunbar R, Barrett L (eds) Handbook of evolutionary psychology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 531–540Google Scholar
  46. Veblen T (1899) The theory of the leisure class; an economic study in the evolution of institutions. The Macmillan Company, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  47. Welte THL, Anastasio PA (2010) To conserve or not to conserve: is status the question? Environ Behav 42:845–863CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Willer R (2009) Groups reward individual sacrifice: the status solution to the collective action problem. Am Sociol Rev 74:23–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Young A (2015) Tesla model S: the only electric car in demand right now as low US gas prices batter plug-in car sales. International Business Times, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  50. Zabkar V, Hosta M (2013) Willingness to act and environmentally conscious consumer behavior: can prosocial status perceptions help overcome the gap? Int J Consum Stud 37:257–264CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matheus De Nardo
    • 1
  • Jeremy S. Brooks
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sonja Klinsky
    • 2
  • Charlie Wilson
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Environment and Natural ResourcesOhio State UniversityColumbusUSA
  2. 2.Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  3. 3.Tyndall Center for Climate Change ResearchUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK

Personalised recommendations