Selfish Motives Are A Key Driver For Sustainability

We might all like to think that our green purchases reflect a genuine concern for the environment, but psychological studies have found this rarely to be true. In fact, sustainability can be inherently selfish.

One such study by Jessica Nolan at the University of Arkansas asked Californians why they tried to conserve energy. At the top of the list of answers was environmental protection and the benefit to society. Least influential of all, the householders claimed, was the fact that other people were doing it.

However, when researchers looked at the data they found it was what people thought their neighbours were doing that actually had the strongest relationship with actual efforts to conserve energy. There was an average 55% reduction in energy by those households who were told that their neighbours had reduced their carbon footprint by significant percentages, compared to only 3% by those who had no knowledge of their neighbours actively participating.

This proves the potential for social status (or “keeping up with the Jones’) to force people into more sustainable (or green) behaviours.

The Psychology Behind Selfish Altruism

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Donating to local charities, diligently recycling, or purchasing environmentally friendly toilet roll are all actions that benefit or contribute to the wellbeing of others. Altruism may play a role in motivating these activities, but selfishness and self-image certainly do too.

When we proudly display our reusable coffee cup or march down the street with our ‘bag for life’ shopping tote across our shoulder, or we might stop to give spare change to a homeless person. We feel good because a socially beneficial act has been done, but mostly, we feel good because we were the ones who caused it. We like wearing this “I am good” badge.

Studies suggest that pure altruism is rare. People are wired to seek an internal, personal kickback that comes from feeling good about completing a moral act, and they seek out ways they can actively display this to others, which enhances the effect of the “selfish altruism” drug.

Here are some examples of this behaviour in action:

1. Toyota Prius

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A study by academics in the US and The Netherlands, ‘Going green to be seen: status, reputation and conspicuous conservation‘ looked at why sales of the Toyota Prius, a hybrid car, increased as the price went up. Economics, of course, suggests the opposite should happen.

It turned out that environmental conservation was low on the list of reasons given by the Prius owners for buying the car. Instead, what researchers found was that it enabled the owners to show, in a highly visible way, that they had made a self-sacrifice.

They concluded; ‘While green products may often offer less luxury, convenience and performance than conventional goods, they offer an important status-enhancing reputational benefit. Such goods enable people to appear pro-social rather than pro-self’.

Study co-author Dr Bram Van den Bergh from the Rotterdam School of Management, says knowing that a desire for status can spur self-sacrifice presents a ‘powerful tool’ for motivating pro-social and pro-environmental action.

He says it is pointless to pretend that we can convince people to buy green products by playing on intrinsic or deeply held beliefs.

And here is the brilliance of it for corporates – consumers are often willing to pay a premium to get this emotional kickback. Even though tax credits for the Toyota Prius had expired in late 2006, sales actually increased the following year by 69%.

2. Fairtrade Products

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People pay a premium for Fair Trade products. The fact that these products are more expensive might in itself qualify them as status symbols for consumers. Consumers see fair trade as a reflection of not just their personal values, but also the value they would like others to perceive them to possess.

According to a study by Globe-scan in 2019, 37% of people in the US who buy fair trade do so primarily because they believe the goods to be superior quality (ethical/ socially good comes lower down the list). This cohort probably represent a different target group than the usual environmentally conscious group that immediately comes to mind.

3. Hotel Towels

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Hotels appeal to guests to reuse their towels with little cards asking them to help protect the planet. But in the 2008 Journal of Consumer Research, it was found that hotel guests are much more likely to reuse towels when they are informed that the majority of hotel guests do so. A more direct and altruistic message of “please help to save the environment” has very little impact on their towel re-using behaviours. People can easily be guilted in to behaving sustainably as they don’t want to be perceived to be behaving differently to others. They want to feel like they belong to the same “good” ethos and community.

4. Backpacks

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Griskevicius, a behavioural psychologist, conducted a study where he presented student volunteers with choices involving different products. This included a North Face backpack with a water-resistant coating and many storage compartments vs. a simple, eco-friendly North Face backpack with fewer features but which was constructed from organic fibres. The students were asked to imagine they were buying the equally priced products either at a store or online, in private.

Those imagining themselves buying the backpacks in public were more likely to go for the enviro backpacks, even though they weren’t as nice as the luxury models. By contrast, those told to imagine buying in private tended to opt for the non-green backpack that offered more features.

So people are happy to forgo additional benefits/features but only when it could influence their reputation.

Tips On How To Utilise Selfishness For Reframing How You Think About Sustainable Innovations;

  1. Segment your consumer targets based on their intrinsic motives, and not what they claim motivates them. Essentially, accept that people’s rampant desires are an enabler for making sustainable products appealing – there is no such thing as ‘bad green’.
  2. Create a sustainable proposition that won’t alienate more truly altruistic people. For example, more altruistically motivated people will shun Fair Trade products if they are promoted as enhancing status, so you have to be subtle about it.
  3. Find suitable substitutes to existing products that have lower impacts on the environment, but are also able to help other people know that they are doing good, or being good. In order to do this, you need to deeply understand and de-code which elements of your product exude the desired ‘status’ cues that consumers want to show off. It might be the packaging, it might be the product, or it could simply be a twist on the way you communicate the product benefits to them.
  4. Get the pricing model right – if green products are too cheap, they might undermine the buyers ability to signal status. Consider keeping products at a higher price, and in doing so, trade-up the value of your consumer base.


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