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Kees Aarts about Linda Steg and the Stevin Prize

Professor Kees Aarts
Professor Kees Aarts

Kees Aarts is Professor of Political Institutions and Behaviour and Dean of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences

The Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences is very proud of Professor Linda Steg, and we wholeheartedly congratulate her on this achievement. We are also extremely pleased as we see this achievement as recognition of the research tradition at the Faculty of Behavioural Social Sciences, which focuses on combining theoretical depth and practical relevance.

Why did Linda Steg win the Stevin prize?

Professor Linda Steg is a pioneer and world leader in environmental psychology, a field that has gained tremendous importance in the face of the current climate crisis.

Now that we have access to the necessary technology to help combat climate change, the main obstacles to the smooth transition to a sustainable society come in the form of political and behavioural challenges. Important questions include: What makes people adopt pro-environmental behaviour? What makes them resist it? How are their motives influenced by their social context? Government policies that aim to influence behaviour typically still rely on incentives and penalties. Steg’s research demonstrates that people can become intrinsically motivated to adopt pro-environmental behaviour and that in the long run, measures that reinforce this intrinsic motivation are likely to be more effective than the ‘carrot and stick’ approach.

Professor Steg was among the first to demonstrate the ubiquity of this intrinsic motivation. Focusing on the everyday choices made by individuals, she has conducted systematic research into environment-related behaviour for over two decades to show how intrinsic and contextual factors interact to boost or hinder pro-environmental behaviour.

Can you tell us about the importance of Steg’s research?

Professor Steg’s scientific research focuses on uncovering the factors that contribute to people’s intrinsic motivation to adopt environment-friendly behaviour. Uncovering these factors amounts to finding a key for solving social dilemmas of many kinds. Generally speaking, social dilemmas are decision-making situations for groups of two or more persons in which individual rationality could lead to social outcomes that are suboptimal for the group. In other words: situations in which all group members would prefer another outcome than the outcome that is the result of individual rationality.

For a long time, the social sciences have dealt with social dilemmas by arguing when, and under which circumstances, intervention by a higher authority than the group itself was called for. Government intervention is the prototypical form of this kind of solution to social dilemmas. Over the past 50 years, theorists have paid more attention to other ways of solving social dilemmas.

How has Linda Steg, as a social psychologist, played a role in solving the social dilemmas of our time?

As a social psychologist, Steg has taken a related but also different approach to solving social dilemmas. Rather than focusing exclusively on the desirability of government intervention, she also addresses people’s intrinsic pro-environmental motivation. She shows that intrinsic motivation is an important driver for pro-environmental behaviour.

Since intrinsic motivation is not uniformly distributed across the population at a sufficiently high level to ensure that a subgroup of a sufficient size exhibits pro-environmental behaviour, the next question is: how can intrinsic motivation be enhanced? This question is addressed in most of Steg’s research. Her answer is twofold. On the one hand, like those researchers who have stressed the importance of institutions, she points to the importance of contextual factors. For example, visible signs of environmental damage (e.g. litter on the streets, graffiti on the walls) appear to discourage environmentally-friendly behaviour. These are external factors affecting intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, the intrinsic pro-environmental motivation can be bolstered by changing the context, thereby changing the decision-making situation that people perceive. For example, throwing rubbish on an already littered pavement is perceived by many people as a less serious environmental ‘offense’ than littering on a clean pavement.

How did Steg’s research become widely known?

As policies intended to boost pro-environmental behavioural among citizens kept falling short, new technologies failed to get picked up and the situation being sketched in climate reports became more urgent, the research and reputation of Professor Steg became more widely known at home and abroad. Her ability to speak the language not only of her fellow researchers but also that of policymakers and of the business community soon made her a well-respected leader and partner in the ongoing struggle to boost pro-environmental behaviours. She has also helped to incorporate a social sciences perspective into what has always been a very technologically-driven approach. Nowadays, practically nobody questions the vital role of the social sciences in achieving the energy transition, and this is in large part due to our very own Professor Linda Steg.

Last modified:22 June 2020 4.18 p.m.
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