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An Experimental Laboratory Test of the Effects of Alternative Indicators of Progress


Given that economic growth is typically associated with ecological destruction and little improvement in human happiness, alternative indicators of progress have been developed to provide decision-makers with additional non-economic information that might better protect the environment and promote human well-being. However, to our knowledge, no experimental evidence exists which demonstrates that the use of such alternative indicators actually causes changes in behaviors. We therefore asked participants to pretend that they were the mayor of a small city that had the opportunity to develop natural land on its borders. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either standard indicators (consisting of only economic information) or alternative indicators (consisting of economic, ecological, and well-being information) as they made decisions over the course of their “term” as mayor. Participants who received alternative indicator feedback developed significantly fewer acres of the natural land than did those who received standard indicator feedback (Cohen’s d = .52). The effect of indicator type did not significantly interact with gender, ethnicity, or value orientation, but participants low in need for cognition were more sensitive to the type of indicator provided than were those high in need for cognition. The results provide the first experimental evidence supporting the claim that alternative indicators can cause decision-makers to focus less on economic outcomes and to prioritize well-being and ecological outcomes.

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  1. Levene’s test for equality of variances was significant (p = .03), so we used a Welch’s t test, which does not assume equal variances between groups.

  2. Because some participants developed all of the 10,000 available acres before quarter 16, results should be treated with caution, particularly for the Year 4 comparisons.


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Funding for this study was provided by a seed grant from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) to the State University of New York at New Paltz. The authors also thank Zhaorui Ren for computer programming, Lucas Kasser for mathematical assistance, and Kasser and Maynard’s undergraduate RAs for help collecting data.

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Correspondence to Tim Kasser or Doug Maynard.

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Kasser, T., Maynard, D. & Perry, A. An Experimental Laboratory Test of the Effects of Alternative Indicators of Progress. Soc Indic Res 143, 901–915 (2019).

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  • Indicators of progress
  • Pro-ecological behavior
  • Values
  • Need for cognition