Research Summary

Seeing the forest as well as the trees: general vs. specific predictors of environmental behavior

Fostering Specific Attitudes and Beliefes for Pro-Environmental Behavior

Environmental Education Research

Motivating pro-environmental behavior through environmental education and outreach requires understanding the attitudes and perceptions that predict engagement in pro-environmental behaviors. In this study, researchers considered two elements of attitudes and perceptions they have explored and connected with environmental behaviors: (1) attitudes and beliefs specific to the environmental behavior that is being promoted, such as attitudes specifically toward energy conservation; and (2) more general environmental attitudes and beliefs.

Although both behavior-specific and general environmental attitudes have been found to predict environmental behavior, few studies have examined which is a better predictor, even though investigating this is crucial for designing environmental education and outreach programs with the goal of motivating behavior change. If behavior-specific attitudes are more predictive of behavior, for example, then programs may be more effective if they seek to foster supportive attitudes and beliefs specific to each individual environmental behavior, rather than focusing on generating support for environmental causes in general.

This study’s authors surveyed 1,160 Israeli undergraduate students to examine whether students’ behavior-specific or general environmental attitudes were better predictors of various self-reported pro-environmental behaviors. In designing the survey, the authors drew from Ajzen and Fishbein’s Theory of Planned Behavior, which suggests that behavior is influenced by four primary attitudes and beliefs: (1) attitudes toward an environmental behavior; (2) subjective norms, or beliefs about social expectations around engaging in an environmental behavior; (3) perceived behavioral control, or beliefs about the difficulty of engaging in an environmental behavior; and (4) behavioral intention, or plans to engage in an environmental behavior. For each of the four attitudes and beliefs outlined in this theory, the authors developed questions that were specific to each environmental behavior. They also developed questions focused more generally on environmental conservation. For attitudes toward behaviors, for example, the authors asked about students’ like or dislike of saving water, as well as environmental conservation in general. The authors then examined the extent to which those specific as well as general attitudes and beliefs predicted five types of self-reported environmental behaviors: water conservation, energy conservation, littering, recycling, and consumption.

The authors found that, for every type of environmental behavior, the behavior-specific attitudes and beliefs predicted environmental behavior better than the general environmental attitudes and beliefs. However, the extent to which behavior-specific elements of the Theory of Planned Behavior improved prediction varied by the type of behavior as well as the attitude and belief measured. Behavior-specific measurements of perceived behavioral control were particularly effective when compared with more general measures of the same constructs. This may be because the more specific measures better accounted for the concrete details and constraints of how a person’s life may influence participation in the desired behavior. In addition, the authors found that more specific measures of subjective norms were especially important for the recycling and consumption domains, possibly because the greater sacrifice demanded by these behaviors meant that social motivations could have a greater impact. Based on these findings, the authors suggest that environmental outreach and educational programs may benefit from addressing attitudes and beliefs about specific environmental behaviors in addition to fostering general environmental awareness.

The Bottom Line

Rather than general attitudes and beliefs, this study finds that specific attitudes and beliefs related to a desired environmental behavior are better predictors of pro-environmental behaviors. Therefore, environmental education programs are likely to be more effective in motivating conservation behavior if they focus on fostering specific attitudes and beliefs associated with a desired pro-environmental behavior, rather than focusing on more general environmental attitudes overall. To target behaviors with this level of specificity, practitioners should focus on one or two key behaviors, as well as the barriers and motivations that influence those behaviors, rather than solely on environmental attitudes more generally.