This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.
I asked Wesley Schultz to comment on the accuracy of my reflections on his work in an earlier post. Here is the subsequent email exchange that we had, which he is happy for me to post up.
Tom: Wes, I’d be interested to know whether you feel that the short post I wrote on your work accurately reflects the questions that your studies raise?
Wes: I think that the material you’ve got posted is generally accurate. I do have a couple of points, but nothing major.
1. In the first section, you state that “He also shows that people with this connectivity are more likely to make behavioral choices that help the environment.” While we do have some data to support this, the results are not particularly strong for implicit connectedness. In a 2007 publication, I describe it this way:
“To use a metaphor, the primitive belief is an aquifer for these more surface-level constructs. But (continuing the metaphor), the surface springs fed from an aquifer often can emerge in locations quite distant from the original source.”
2. In the middle section, you raise the issue of “moral ought.” This connection is unclear to me, and needs further elaboration. I don’t agree that an appeal to egoistic reasons (e.g., do it to save money, or do it because it’s more convenient) equate to a moral ought.
3.Toward the end it seems that you are arguing in favor of appealing to ecocentric motives. As you say, “Making things appeal to other peoples’ ecocentric concerns in this way will lead, by its very nature, to a more systemic set of interventions.” While I agree with this statement, I don’t believe that such appeals will ultimately be effective at changing behavior. The problem is that not everyone has this strong sense of connectedness and they won’t find the ecocentric messages motivational. So, do we change the message to fit the audience (the egoistic approach you discount earlier in the message) or do we try to change the audience so that they resonate with ecocentric messages.
Tom: Thank you, Wes. This is very clear. I am particularly interested by your third point. I had the impression from your presentation in WWF-UK that you were indeed advocating an appeal to peoples’ ecocentric concerns.
You write: “The problem is that not everyone has this strong sense of connectedness and they won’t find the ecocentric messages motivational.” And yet, I understood you to be arguing that, although today’s predominant strategies (appealing to egotistic interests) work in a piece-meal fashion, they will not lead to the systemic changes we need, either. How, then, should we respond to your work?
You raise the question: “So, do we change the message to fit the audience… or do we try to change the audience so that they resonate with ecocentric messages?” I understood you to argue that whilst the former might work for effecting specific pieces of change, systemic change was best pursued through the latter.
Have I got hold of the wrong end of the stick here?
Wes: That’s the tricky part. Both can work. Creating programs or messages that appeal to the egoistic motive CAN change behavior, but as you note the changes are “piecemeal” and unlikely to generalize across context or behavior.
But if we use ecocentric messages, not everyone will find them motivational. Such messages are likely to be motivational for people who already have a sense of connectedness, but not everyone does. I think this is the current state of affairs. Most environmental organizations are creating ecocentric-based messages (or trying a “new” approach of appealing to egoistic motives).
The third option–and one that is perhaps more controversial–is to try and change the audience. That is, to promote a sense of connectedness among people who don’t already have it. This is what I’m currently researching. Is this feasible? What do we know about the origins of connectedness? And how can the findings from this research inform our efforts to promote change.
So, I agree with you that creating egoistically-based messages are short sighted. The problem is that they might work for changing specific behaviors. Thus, they are a tempting tool for environmental organizations, but I think the results are likely to be narrowly confined and context specific.