Why We Need Humane Education: Research Shows Promoting Self-Interest as a Pro-Environment Tool Can Backfire

Image courtesy sgtgary via Creative Commons.
As humane educators and activists, we encounter conflicting information about how best to inspire and encourage others to take compassionate action. We hear that people will only respond to something if it's in their best interests. Of course, a healthy, sustainable, humane planet is in everyone's interests, but what they really mean is that the action helps them save money or benefits them in some other self-serving way. But as humane educators, we've also seen that when people come to care for people, animals, and the planet, they're more interested in choosing actions that help others. And while we know that everyone responds to different motivators, as a general rule, what are we to believe?

Well those of us who have long supported promoting altruistic and humane behavior for its own sake have a new piece of evidence to affirm our vision. A recent report in Nature Climate Change (h/t to Wired) outlines several experiments focused on the connections between pro-environmental behavior and self-interested motivations versus self-transcendent motivations.

Researchers discovered that:
"When attempting to persuade people to adopt pro-environmental behaviour, it seems intuitive to persuade them that it is in their own interest. Indeed, many campaigns emphasize financial reasons to change environmental behaviour. ... However, campaigners have recently raised the possibility that this tactic may reduce the scope for positive spillover in pro-environmental behaviours. Spillover refers to the likelihood that the encouragement of one environmental behaviour (for example, through a campaign), or its performance, will lead to the performance of other pro-environmental behaviours in the future. ... financial incentives might actually decrease the likelihood of positive spillover; that is, such incentives may make people less likely to carry out environmental actions in general."

In one experiment, participants who were told about the money-saving benefits of carpooling seemed less likely to choose to recycle.

Researchers also highlighted that "over an extended period of time, carrying out a pro-environmental behaviour because of financial incentives may have lasting effects on people’s self-perception." They may come to see themselves as operating out of self-interest, and thus "come to value self-transcendence less."

Read the complete article.

Because our culture perpetuates self-interest as admirable and necessary, it makes sense to many that it's the must-use strategy for inspiring people to take humane action. But as this study implies, we're better than that -- and we want to be better than that.

And while an essential piece of helping people make different choices is to ensure that it's convenient and at least somewhat mainstream to make those choices, humane education is a vital tool for nurturing our reverence and connection with others, which makes us more likely to be open to those self-transcendent choices.

~ Marsha

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