Research Summary

Connectedness with nature and the decline of pro-environmental behavior in adolescence: A comparison of Canada and China

Initiatives promoting pro-environment behavior in adolescents may be enhanced by targeting culturally specific mechanisms

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Research suggests that teenagers tend to enjoy nature less than children and adults. This research, however, has focused primarily on people living in Western countries where individualism tends to be more highly valued than collectivism. This study investigated age-related differences in connectedness with nature cross-culturally by comparing a sample of Chinese and Canadian adolescents. A major cultural difference between these two countries relates to the fact that the Chinese culture emphasizes collectivism while the Canadian culture emphasizes individualism. Values held by people in a collectivistic culture tend to reflect a normative concern that is shared with others. Values of an individualistic society, on the other hand, are strongly based on personal preferences. “Consequently, many social behaviors that are considered at people's personal discretion in Western countries are normatively regulated in collectivistic cultural contexts.”

A total of 688 young people participated in this study: 325 from Canada; 362 from China. All participants (age 9 – 21) lived in urban environments with comparable levels of economic development. A survey used to collect data for this study included measures of connectedness with nature, pro-environmental behaviors, and moral emotion expectancies. The measures were adjusted for cross-cultural differences. The measure of moral emotion expectancies was limited to examples of engaging in pro-environmental behavior (or failing to do so) and served as an indicator of pro-environmental norm activation. Some moral emotions – such as guilt and pride – are self-evaluative. Others -- such as outrage and admiration -- are other-evaluative. The measure used for this study addressed both self- and other-evaluative emotion expectancies as predictors of pro-environmental behavior. A distinction was made between positive (e.g., pride, admiration) and negative emotions (e.g., guilt, outrage). One aim of this study was to investigate what type of emotion expectancy (self- or other-evaluative, positive or negative) would best account for pro-environmental behavior of adolescents.

As expected, older adolescents from both countries demonstrated lower connectedness with nature than younger participants. This age-related decline in connectedness with nature was paralleled by a marked decline in pro-environmental behavior in Canadian adolescents; but less so in Chinese adolescents. Further analysis showed that positive self-evaluative emotion expectancies accounted for the difference between the pro-environmental behaviors of the Chinese and Canadian adolescents. Pride for engaging in sustainable behavior is positively linked with age in China; and this increasing pride tends to buffer the effects of declining nature-connectedness.

This study found that the age-related decline in pro-environmental behavior in adolescence associated with lower feelings of connectedness with nature was less marked in the Chinese context as compared to Canada. This suggests that initiatives for promoting pro-environmental behavior in adolescence should target culturally specific mechanisms. In individualistic cultures, promoting pro-environmental behavior during the teenage years might be more effective if the focus is on increasing feelings of connectedness with nature through engaging activities.  In collectivistic cultures, fostering moral emotions may prove to be a more promising approach.