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The title will become relevant in a few lines or so, but first some context: this year (and next) I will be pursuing a master’s degree by dissertation. As most of you will know the first few weeks of finding one’s research topic and question, and reading relevant literature, can be confusing to say the least. I have found the experience exciting, but also incredibly perplexing, as I have (annoyingly) made it my goal to venture into inter-disciplinary research. Last year I was very engaged with research that pertained to the physical environment, as I pursued my honours degree in atmospheric science. My days were filled with learning about models and fiddling with data, and at night my dreams were filled with code (is this a common experience?). This year I have taken a step in a rather different direction, and intend on pursing research with a more social touch (please don’t cringe everyone).

This is probably no surprise to most, as those who know me, know that I am more of a “people” person. My reason for pursuing a degree in atmospheric science was always to build a solid foundation in understanding the physical environment, before making the transition to how society engage with, understand, and interpret the science. Unfortunately, knowing what I want to do has made the transition no easier as I come face to face with the Journal of Personality, the Journal of Business Ethics, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and the likes.

One of the topics that I have found to be most interesting in relating to the natural environment, are theories on human behaviour and how people think and understand complex and BIG issues. I came across the value concept, which as Rokeach (1973) puts it: “…is able to unify the apparently diverse interests of all the sciences concerned with human behavior.” And I thought YAY this is the answer, so I read some more….and came to the unfortunate conclusion that the more I read the less I feel I know. And more importantly, started an ongoing household debate (by household I mean between myself and my boyfriend and 3 dogs, though the dogs didn’t provide much useful input and are mostly in it for the Beenos I suspect). The debate requires a little bit of theoretical background. I’ll try not to bore you!

There is a dominant and popular theory that conceptualizes values in the social psychology literature, proposed by Schwartz (1992). To summarise, Schwartz identified 10 universal values that can be divided into four distinct clusters, which vary along two basic dimensions. These two dimensions are: Openness to change (which includes self-direction and stimulation) versus a desire to conserve/respect tradition (such as security and conformity), and self-transcendence (things like altruism, forgiveness, loyalty) versus self-enhancement (power, ambition, hedonism).

Schwartz suggests that people possess a range of different and sometimes conflicting values. However, studies show that certain values provide a better source of motivation for engaging in big issue problems, such as climate change, and these values generally belong to the self-transcendence group. The sets of values in each basic dimension actin direct opposition to each other. So one would find, for example, that a person who puts high priority on the value altruism, would rank hedonism as a low priority. The importance in these sets of values in a person is not whether they have one or another type of value, but rather the relative importance he/she attaches to the different sets of values.

Initial public messaging of climate and environmental issues tended to highlight self-transcendence values. Think images of polar bears, and fear/guilt based messages around consumption. Therefore, the first time the public heard about climate change, it was framed to appeal to issues of social justice, animal welfare, and inequality. This meant that the messaging mostly appealed to persons who placed high priority on self-transcendence values, such as altruism, whilst ignoring (and criticizing) the values of persons who have higher priority on self-enhancement values (such materialism). As an unintended result, the public engagement on climate change has become polarized along value-based lines.In comes the so-called hero, social marketing. I’ve quoted Corner et al. (2014) here because I couldn’t say it better:

“Social marketing is the systematic application of concepts and strategies used to market physical products in order to achieve prosocial behavioural goals. The audience thus needs to be segmented into different groups based on differences in their attitudes or values, and that the messaging be tailored to each group “    (Corner et al. 2014).

What this means, is that it has become popular for campaigns to promote the benefits of climate-friendly behaviour in terms self-enhancement values, i.e. economic gain. Many researchers in the field of social psychology argue that this is a big mistake, and say that campaigns that frame their messages by appealing to a person’s self-enhancement value sets undermine the promotion of self-transcendent values, by activating and encouraging self-enhancement values. Authors such as Cromptom (2010) argue that by focusing on self-enhancing values, the behavioural “spillover” (i.e. the transference of postivie engagement with climate change from one behaviour to the next) is less likely. This is because the origin of the change in behaviour was only performed for economic gain (i.e. MONEY), not out of concern for the environment (LOVE).

My boyfriend (a financial analyst) has always taken the stance that behavioural changes are more likely if there is a financial benefit to acting. And I have always thought, yes it makes sense, people will change when changing will provide an immediate benefit to them (e.g. If I purchase a solar geyser, I will save money this year, or the tax on electricity is high so I’ll use less electricity to save money). But now, the value concept has muddied the water!

The question is, and I would love to hear your arguments, is whether or not campaigns which aim to promote environmentally friendly behaviour should appeal to self-enhancement values, when the chance of a spillover effect (see definition above) is unlikely.







Corner, A., Markowitz, E., and Pidgeon, N., (2014) Public engagement with climate change: the role of human values. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. Volume 5, Issue 3, pages 411–422.


Crompton, T (2010)  Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, CPRE, Climate Outreach Information


Rokeach, M (1973) The Nature of Human Values. New York: The Free Press.


Schwartz, SH (1992) Universals in the content and structure of values: theoretical

advances and empirical tests in 20 countries, in Zanna, M (ed.) Advances in

Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 25 (pp. 1-65). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.



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