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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Correspondence to Jeremy S. Brooks.

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This study was determined to be exempt from IRB review by the Office of Responsible Research Practices at the Ohio State University (project number 2013E0189).

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De Nardo, M., Brooks, J.S., Klinsky, S. et al. Social signals and sustainability: ambiguity about motivations can affect status perceptions of efficiency and curtailment behaviors. Environ Syst Decis 37, 184–197 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10669-017-9624-y

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Keywords

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