Research Summary

You did, so you can and you will: Self-efficacy as a mediator of spillover from easy to more difficult pro-environmental behaviour

Environmental action builds confidence in ability to make change, and then confidence encourages more environmental actions

Journal of Environmental Psychology
2016

Motivating people to act in environmentally friendly ways can be difficult. This study explored how building self-efficacy (belief in one’s capacity to make change) in undertaking “easy” pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) may contribute to people later engaging in “more difficult” PEBs. The concept of “scaling up” PEBs in levels of difficulty is a psychological effect called “spillover,” which could help to spark mobilization of increased PEBs. The researchers investigated whether engaging in “easy” environmental actions could lead to increased confidence in someone’s personal ability to make positive change, which could then lead to increased environmental actions.

The study explored water-related PEBs in two separate studies. In Study 1, authors analyzed how participating in “easy” PEBs may lead to increased self-efficacy, and that increased self-efficacy then led to intention to participate in “harder” PEBs. Authors recruited 473 participants from 4 Australian cities. All participants had a garden, yard, or outdoor plants to guarantee they could participate in the target PEBs. The participants then responded to an online questionnaire about how often they engaged in water-related PEBs. There were 23 PEBs in the study: 14 about water conservation and 9 about water quality. For example, one question asked: “When you use garden chemicals, how often do you follow the instructions (e.g., use the correct amount)?” Then, participants self-reported their self-efficacy with questions such as “I feel capable of conserving water” and their environmental identity with questions such as “I think of myself as an environmental person.” Participants were then asked to report on the likelihood of participating in the same 14 PEBs in the next six months. Researchers used statistics to test whether the hypothesized relationships were supported.

Results from study 1 supported the hypothesis that “small” PEBs increased self-efficacy, which then improved intention to participate in “harder” PEBs. If participants did more easy PEBs, they were more likely to have higher self-efficacy, and in turn, more likely to intend to do harder PEBs. This relationship was stronger than environmental self-identity (seeing yourself as an environmental person), which suggested that this spillover effect might work with people who do not identify as environmentally friendly. However, the major limitation of this study is that the spillover is only suggested, as intending to do a PEB is not the same as actually doing it.

Study 2 attempted to address the limitations of study one by measuring spillover over time. As with study 1, study 2 focused on water-related behavior. Here, the “easy” PEBs were water saving PEBs, and “hard” PEBs were installing water efficient appliances. In study 2, researchers conducted a pre- and post-survey that measured actual PEBs rather than intended PEBs. Participants were recruited in a similar manner (survey panel in southeast Australia), but only those completing the pre- and post- surveys were included (165 people total). Similar to study 1, the pre-survey asked about household water-use questions, such as how much water participants used in their kitchen, garden, showers, etc., as well as whether they had installed any water-efficient appliances and whether they intended to. Participants also answered questions to assess self-efficacy and environmental identity. In the post-survey four months later, participants were asked if they had installed the water-efficient appliances. Researchers then tested the links between doing easy PEBs, self-efficacy, intentions to do hard PEBs, and actually doing them.

Study 2 found that these hypothesized relationships still held: participating in easy PEBs built self-efficacy, which made people more likely to plan to do harder PEBs, which in turn made the more likely to do them. Authors pointed out that the importance of self-efficacy makes a lot of theoretical sense, but this is the first time anyone has measured it in the context of spillover. They also note that self-efficacy likely mediates any type of spillover, including between easy and easy PEBs or hard and hard. Future research should include self-efficacy as a mediator of PEB spillover and explore how supporting self-efficacy may accelerate this process.

There were limitations acknowledged in this study. First, these results were limited to water-related PEBs. Secondly, different measures of self-efficacy were used in the two studies. Thirdly, wording of questions may have been convoluted. Fourthly, the perception of the labels “easy” and “difficult” may be have been subjective. Lastly, considering that this study was in Australia, another study in another context or country may have different results.

Encouraging people to engage in easy environmentally-friendly PEBs may support a person’s sense of self-efficacy (the belief of ability to make positive change on a topic). This is important and recommended because larger self-efficacy can take them from engaging in easy environmentally-friendly PEBs to more difficult environmentally-friendly PEBs in the future.

The Bottom Line

This study explored how building self-efficacy (belief in one’s capacity to make change) in undertaking “easy” pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) may contribute to people later engaging in “more difficult” PEBs. To do so, the authors recruited and surveyed 473 participants from 4 Australian cities. They found that participating in easy PEBs built self-efficacy, which made people more likely to plan to do harder PEBs, which in turn made the participants more likely to do them.