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Money not always an effective incentive for sustainable behaviour

17 December 2012

‘Save money by taking shorter showers!’ This type of campaigns is often used to encourage consumers to behave more sustainably. Calling on people's environmental awareness is said to be less effective. Research by psychologist Jan Willem Bolderdijk of the University of Groningen, however, reveals that this is not always true. What's more, Bolderdijk shows that working on people's wallets sometimes has the opposite effect. His research was published in Nature Climate Change.

It is a generally accepted principle in the advertising world that using financial arguments helps get your point across. However, previous research has also shown that money is not the only thing that people care about – a positive self-image is also important, and people like to see themselves as conscientious, honest and morally sound. ‘This has consequences for environmental campaigns’, states Bolderdijk. ‘People may prefer to see themselves as environmentally aware than as frugal or even stingy, and could therefore be more sensitive to campaigns that call on their environmental awareness – ‘do it for the planet’ - rather than financial aspects - ‘do it for the money’.

Online test

Bolderdijk and his colleagues investigated this hypothesis using two questionnaires, in which some people got to read the message ‘Care about your finances? Get a free tyre check’, whereas others were given the message ‘Care about the environment? Get a free tyre check’. The researchers asked both groups how responding to this call for action would make them feel. It turned out that people felt more positive about saving the planet than saving money.

Petrol station

Together with several American colleagues, Bolderdijk also placed sandwich boards at a petrol station in the state of Virginia. All boards contained an offer for a free tyre check, but each with a different argument. Just as in the questionnaires, one of the boards focused on saving money and the other on saving the planet. In addition, one board focused on safety and one - the control board - contained no argument at all.


There were coupons next to the sandwich boards that people could exchange for a free tyre check. For 22 days the researchers kept count of how many coupons people took. The environmental awareness argument turned out to be most effective, followed by the safety argument and the sandwich board without argument. To the researchers' surprise, no-one took a coupon from the ’Do you care about your finances' sandwich board. ‘Appealing to financial self-interest sometimes seems to have a negative effect', says Bolderdijk.

‘People want to be able to face themselves in the mirror, and most of us prefer to see ourselves as green rather than frugal or stingy', he concludes. ‘Keeping a positive self-image may be an important motivation for sustainable behaviour. Policy makers could take that into account when designing ad campaigns to stimulate sustainable behaviour in consumers.’

Note for the press

Further information: Dr J.W. Bolderdijk

Reference: Comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning, J. W. Bolderdijk, L. Steg, E. S. Geller, P. K. Lehman & T. Postmes. Nature Climate Change, 9 December 2012.


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.51 a.m.
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