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‘The government must draw more attention to the importance of sustainability’

10 November 2010

In order to encourage more sustainable behaviour, the government must moralize more. This is the opinion of Linda Steg, Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Groningen. ‘Right now the message tends to be that sustainability is fun, as well as good for our wallets. This comes with a great risk. Enjoying something is shaky grounds for a change in behaviour. People must realize that sustainable living patterns are a necessity.’

One of the most important environment-related problems is that our carbon emissions are increasing due to our increased use of energy. According to Steg, technological innovation will not be enough to lower carbon emissions, meaning that the government must do more to encourage sustainable lifestyles.


Steg gives the mobility policy as an example. ‘In the 1990s the government stated that mobility must be limited, but this century has seen a switch. Mobility is now no longer an issue, but price instruments have been suggested to reduce the problems associated with car traffic. The message ends up being that mobility should be reduced, but that isn’t said out loud. Moralizing has become a dirty word.’ This is a mistake, says Steg. ‘The cabinet should be able to say that people ought to do certain things because they are good for the environment.’

At the same time, the government must make it possible for citizens to act in sustainable fashion, Steg adds. ‘They can do this, for example, by informing citizens properly. These days we are overwhelmed with information about sustainability. But by giving more tailored advice, for example through interactive websites, you can make it clear to citizens how they can change their habits.’

Intrinsic motivation

For many people, financial advantage is not a very influential argument for a change in behaviour. This has become apparent through research carried out by Steg’s colleague Jan Willem Bolderdijk, who recently studied young drivers’ driving behaviour. The drivers were given a reward if they kept to the speed limit. Steg: ‘That worked very well, but once the reward was no longer awarded, they immediately fell back into their old behaviour patterns. The financial incentive turned out to be an unstable base. The intrinsic motivation for changing one’s behaviour was missing.’

Clever feedback systems

Convincing people through environmental arguments can be effective, Steg suggests. Doing something that is good for the environment gives a positive feeling and is good for our self-image, according to recent research. ‘That information can be used effectively in clever feedback systems’, according to the professor. ‘At the moment, clever meters are often not very clever at all. They only register how much energy you use, without showing why your energy use is high or low. The message that you are currently using 20 kilowatt hours means nothing to most people. A message telling you that you’re using five kilowatt hours more than yesterday means a lot more. By comparing usage information with earlier information or other people’s information makes it more meaningful. We are very much influenced by what others say or do. A point of reference is very important.’

Conflicting goals

When asked, citizensindicate that they regard the environment as very important. But it has to become easier to act according to our norms and values, according to Steg. ‘Now you often have to pay more to do the right thing. The opposite should be the case. Think of buying organic products. The government can influence that much more.For example, they could do that by taxing products that are bad for the environment. At the same time, environmentally unfriendly behaviour is often still stimulated. For example, people who live far away from their jobs are given a travel allowance.’

Steg: ‘People tend to have three goals, of which the normative goal (doing the right thing for the environment) often conflicts with the other two, namely the hedonistic goal (enjoyment) and the profit goal. Only once these (often conflicting) goals can be brought in line with each other will there be room for a change in behaviour.’

Curriculum vitae

Linda Steg (Ravenswoud, 1965) studied Adult Education at the University of Groningen and was awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. She is Professor of Environmental Psychology and studies the interaction between people and their environment, including factors that can influence car and energy use, and the effects and acceptance of environmental and traffic policy.

Last modified:28 November 2019 4.41 p.m.
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