Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 56, No. 3, 2000, pp. 509–526
Expanding and Evaluating Motives for
Environmentally Responsible Behavior
Raymond De Young*
University of Michigan
This article contends that while striving to promote environmentally responsible
behavior, we have focused attention too narrowly on just two classes of motives.
There is a need to expand the range of motives available to practitioners and to
provide a framework within which motives can be evaluated for both their immedi
ate and long-term effectiveness. The article then examines a strategy for promoting
environmentally responsible behavior that has significant potential. This strategy
is based on a particular form of motivation called intrinsic satisfaction. Nine stud
ies are reviewed that have outlined the structure of intrinsic satisfaction. A key
theme discussed is the human inclination for competence. This fundamental human
concern is shown to have both a general form and a resource-specific version.
Although the search for motives effective at promoting environmentally
responsible behavior (ERB) is being enthusiastically pursued, the work so far has
been somewhat confined. The vast majority of attention has been given to only two
motivations: providing material incentives and disincentives sufficient to make the
behavior worth attending to and focusing on the altruistic reasons for engaging in
the behavior. There has been relatively little exploration of other, potentially more
Early attention was given to the use of incentives and disincentives. Scott
Geller and his colleagues explored the effectiveness of incentives and disincen
tives in promoting ERB and established that such behavior can be motivated by the
manipulation of material reward, whether token or real (Geller, 1987, 1992; Geller,
*This article is based on an address presented at the meeting of the Society for the Psychological
Study of Social Issues, Ann Arbor, MI, June 19, 1998. The research discussed in the article was partially
funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation (96-34311A-WER). Correspondence concerning
this article should be addressed to Raymond De Young, School of Natural Resources and Environment,
University of Michigan, 430 East University Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1115 [e-mail:
© 2000 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
510 De Young
Winett, & Everett, 1982; see also Cone & Hayes, 1980). The last quarter-century
has witnessed a continued interest in and expansion of the behaviorist perspective
(see, for instance, Geller, 1989). As this article will discuss, however, it was two
undesirable properties of this approach that encouraged researchers to pursue other
motivations. It turned out that incentives needed constant reintroduction to remain
effective and they proved to be less reliable than we had hoped (Katzev & Johnson,
Altruism is another motive that has received significant research attention. It
remains popular among researchers as a powerful, if not the dominant, motive for
the adoption of ERB. The major conceptual framework for studying altruism has
been the Schwartz moral norm activation model (Schwartz, 1970), although Geller
has recently proposed an alternative framework (Allen & Ferrand, 1999; Geller,
1995a, 1995b). Current empirical work identifies both a sociocentric and an
ecocentric form of altruism (see Eckersley, 1992; Schultz, this issue). For the con
cept of altruism to be useful for practitioners, we will need to provide the type of
specific guidelines for using altruism that exist for using incentives and disincen
tives. Unfortunately, altruism may suffer from more than just a lack of procedural
guidelines, for as Kaplan (this issue) suggests, altruism may be a fatal remedy
Environmentally Responsible Behavior as Multiply Determined
There is no scientific reason to narrow the range to just these two categories of
motivation. After over a century of psychological research, it would hardly seem
necessary to argue in support of the concept of the multiple determination of
behavior, but for a variety of reasons single-determination theories remain popular.
From an evolutionary perspective, it seems likely that there would be multiple
motivations impinging on any given behavior. As philosopher Mary Midgley
(1978) has pointed out, human beings want many things, not just one. Furthermore,
the many are not reducible to or exchangeable for one. We want clear air, she notes,
and clean water. No amount of the one can substitute for a lack of the other. She is
troubled by a tendency to seek one central motivation for all that we do, finding
such efforts “a misplaced and futile sort of economy.”
Empirical evidence has emerged supporting the idea that ERB has multiple
antecedents (Schultz, this issue; Stern & Dietz, 1994; Stern, Dietz, Kalof, &
Guagnano, 1995; Thompson & Barton, 1994) and that specific behaviors may have
distinctly different patterns of initiation (Cook & Berrenberg, 1981; Oskamp et al.,
1991). Thus, it seems extremely unlikely that ERB is wholly a function of a single
motive and more likely, as Allen and Ferrand (1999) contend, that ERB is multiply
511 Motives for Environmentally Responsible Behavior
Evaluation Criteria for Behavior Change Techniques
To select from among alternative motives we must determine the conditions
under which they are effective. Traditionally the effectiveness of a motive is
assessed by predicting the occurrence or frequency of self-reported or observed
behavior (see, for instance, Corral-Verdugo, 1997). Alternatively, a motive is
shown to be significantly associated with an established measure of environmental
attitudes or concern (e.g., the New Environmental Paradigm) in an effort to
validate its effectiveness. Such unidimensional evaluation, however, misses the
fact that there are many features a motive might possess. These features can be
organized into two general categories. Outcome-based evaluations deal with the
effectiveness of a technique in isolation, whereas context-based evaluations focus
on those factors that moderate the effectiveness of a technique.
Cone and Hayes (1980) argued in favor of two outcome-based criteria:
(a) whether a technique can be reliably implemented by a variety of individuals
and (b) its ability to promote durable behavior change (also see De Young, 1993).
Clearly, the most straightforward question a practitioner can ask is whether a
technique does initiate behavior change. Framed in this way, reliability focuses
on the more immediate effects of an intervention and can be measured at two
levels. The first level is to assess what proportion of a population is responsive.
The second level is to assess whether a technique is still capable of effecting
change after repeated presentation to the same individual.
Durability, in contrast, concerns long-term effects. The issue here is whether
behavior, once changed, is maintained without repeated intervention by the practi
tioner. The reliability of a behavior change technique is vital. Yet given the number
of environmental problems being faced, we could argue that a vital goal is to create
behavior change that is long-term and self-maintaining.
Early on, both reliability and durability emerged as weaknesses of material
incentives and disincentives. Numerous researchers reported that although mone
tary incentives are able to initiate ERB, they seem unable to produce durable
behavior change: Behavior returned to baseline levels after the reinforcement was
terminated (Dwyer, Leeming, Cobern, Porter, & Jackson, 1993; Katzev & John
son, 1987). It is unrealistic to require that environmental practitioners perpetually
intervene to maintain a single behavior. Their programs, particularly their budgets,
rarely allow for such vigilance. Even when an incentive could be partially main
tained, by employing an intermittent schedule or token rewards, the results none
theless prove to be less reliable than hoped. In some studies, participation rates
were as low as 8% (Katzev & Johnson, 1987), and, as McClelland and Canter
(1981) report, the effects do not last:
512 De Young
The studies indicate that positive financial incentives can lead to some conservation, at least
for a limited time (3 to 10 weeks). However, the monies distributed have usually exceeded
the value of the energy saved; the effects have often faded over time; and many residents
seem unaware of or uninterested in the monies available. (p. 14)
It is now known that reliability and durability can be diminished by a variety of
psychological processes. For instance, reduced reliability can result from habitua
tion (Brickman & Campbell, 1971), and motives powerful enough to cause
overjustification can reduce durability (see Lepper, 1981; Lepper & Greene, 1978).
Both reliability and durability can be diminished by psychological reactance, where
the recipient does the opposite of what is demanded (J. W. Brehm, 1966; S. Brehm
& J. W. Brehm, 1981). This latter phenomenon is more than just a disturbing theo
retical possibility. Reactance effects have been noted in numerous investigations
including the study of legal prohibitions (Mazis, 1975) and strongly worded
prompts for proenvironmental action (Reich & Robertson, 1979).
The possibility of reactance is not limited to strong coercive techniques.
Schwartz and Howard (1981) report a number of situations in which “in the pres
ence of factors most conducive to activating norms favoring helping, decreased
rates of helping behavior have sometimes been obtained.” The range of possible
explanations offered by these authors is revealing: suspiciousness following a
high-pressure appeal, psychological reactance, and overjustification when “exter
nal pressures to provide aid undermine the internalized motivation to perform
Finally, reactance is not limited to an intervention’s recipient. Evidence is
accumulating about the effect on the users of powerful interventions. Even a suc
cessful behavior change intervention, one that effectively alters the target behav
ior, can negatively alter the user’s perceptions in two ways: contempt for those
people he is influencing and self-contempt. In the former case, the more an inter
vention restricts the recipient’s choice of how to respond to an issue, the more the
user of that technique will have a negative perception of the recipient (O’Neal,
Kipnis, & Craig, 1994; Rind & Kipnis, 1999). When the intervention does not
constrain freedom to think and decide, the user of the technique will have a more
positive evaluation of the recipient. Rind and Kipnis (1999) also report that the use
of strong intervention techniques results in the user’s having significantly lower
Taken together, these findings suggest that we approach all behavior change
situations, even those that appear to have succeeded, with caution. Even with the
best of intentions, we can trigger reactance and thus possibly reduce both reliability
Cone and Hayes (1980) also suggested a third criterion that focuses on the
context of behavior change. This measure, generalizability, evaluates whether a
513 Motives for Environmentally Responsible Behavior
motivational approach can be effectively applied to other environmental problems,
settings, and contexts. This is a long-established concern of research. Another way
of conceptualizing this measure is to ask about the generalizability of the effect on
a single recipient. Here we are interested in unintended but beneficial side effects,
the degree to which a person’s adoption of a specific ERB either “spills over” to
other settings or promotes the adoption of untargeted but related behaviors (De
There is theoretical support for the idea that prior behavior is predictive of
future behavior (Ajzen, 1991). Usually the prediction is of an identical behavior in
a single setting: past household recycling predicting future household recycling,
for example. Evidence is emerging that a specific behavior in one setting can
generalize to another setting. In a study of office-based conservation programs, it
was found that prior experience with general household recycling was effective at
predicting general office recycling. Likewise, prior household experience with a
particular material, in this instance paper, predicted office conservation behavior
with respect to that same material (Lee, De Young, & Marans, 1995), and
on-the-job recycling has been reported to carry over to the home (Fusco, 1991).
There is also evidence that this effect exists with less specificity. Initial, if limited
support, comes from a study of a pilot recycling program in which participation in
the recycling effort fostered other conservation behavior (Kreutzwiser, 1991). Per
haps most important is that the fundamental mechanism at work here is likely to be
familiarity with a new behavior rather than experience in its direct and literal sense.
In a study of the adoption of photovoltaics by utility managers, A. W. Kaplan
(1999) reported that conceptual familiarity was an effective predictor of adoption
interest. This is an extremely hopeful notion for practitioners, since what people
can become familiar with is not limited to what they directly experience.
A related generalizability issue is whether motivational techniques can be
designed for universal application or must instead be uniquely designed for sub
groups or, at the extreme, for each individual. Foa (1971) has discussed various
motivators as being either more universal (e.g., money, goods, information) or
more particularistic (e.g., personal attention, social recognition, services). Money
and personal attention are at extreme but opposite ends of the particularistic dimen
sion. Foa suggests that money is least particularistic of all motivators because it
retains its same value without regard to the relationship between the intervener and
the recipient. In contrast, it clearly does matter from whom we receive personal
attention for, as Foa points out, its effectiveness is closely linked to the provider. A
more particularistic technique would be less generalizable because it would be
more context specific.
Another set of context-based issues deal with preexisting conditions. Two
moderators have emerged as significant. The first is depth of concern. This con
cept has proved useful in understanding attitude-behavior relationships. Attitudes
are found to be more predictive of behavior when they are held with greater
514 De Young
conviction. For example, Abelson (1988) suggests that it is vital to distinguish
between those attitudes that people do not genuinely concern themselves about
and those that are personally significant for them. There is evidence that success
ful promotion efforts require that people think of an ERB as important from their
own point of view (Dwyer et al., 1993; Geller, 1995a, 1995b: Porter, Leeming, &
Dwyer, 1995). Motives will be more effective in those instances in which the
behavior the motive seeks to promote goes to the core of a person’s needs or con
cerns. In contrast, a motive will be ineffective if the behavior being promoted
relates to something of less profound importance and thus, more easily ignored if
matters or time press.
It is unlikely that a single motive will prove effective on all these dimensions.
A durable motive may not be widespread in its appeal. A reliable motive may not
be generalizable. The challenge, then, is to identify a broad collection of motives
for practitioners to use. In deciding where to direct our attention, it is worth noting
that extrinsic motives, as a general class, seem deficient in a number of the evalua
tion criteria (De Young, 1993). There is hope for better outcomes when dealing
with intrinsic motives.
Reconsidering a Much Maligned Motive
Self-interest is traditionally identified as a major source of environmental
problems (Hardin & Baden, 1977; Mansbridge, 1990). This presumption was cen
tral to much of the early research on ERB. It is, for instance, a fundamental part
of human behavioral ecology, which argues that humans are egocentric gain-
maximizers, having evolved to consume resources with little or no concern for
efficiency, to pass waste and costs on to others, and to form small groups that
exclude and neglect the interest of others. Self-interest is modeled as focusing
solely on short-term individual or familial gain to the exclusion of long-term soci
etal or environmental benefits (Low & Heinen, 1993).
In sharp contrast, research reported this past decade suggests the possibility
that self-interest is a potential solution to environmental problems. In findings that
further support the notion that ERB is multiply determined, Stern, Dietz, and Kalof
(1993) argue that self-interest works in concert with altruism to promote ERB, and
Fusco (1991) reports that office recycling programs that begin with legal coercion
or social concern often continue by adopting a motive that is best described as eco
Recent work on volunteerism speaks to the long-term effect of attending to
one’s self-interest. Snyder and colleagues, employing a functional approach,
report that people have a wide variety of reasons for volunteering, including valu
ing social issues, concern for community well-being, personal development, and
esteem enhancement (Clary & Snyder, 1999; Snyder & Omoto, 1992). What is
fascinating is that a person with more self-oriented motives (e.g., esteem
515 Motives for Environmentally Responsible Behavior
enhancement, personal development) tends to remain a volunteer longer. In con
trast, a person with more community, social-issue-focused, or value-based reasons
tends to volunteer for a shorter period. The authors suggest “that the opportunity to
have personal, self-oriented, and perhaps even selfish functions served by volun
teering was what kept volunteers actively involved” (Omoto & Snyder, 1995, p.
683). If durability is a concern, then these findings suggest that efforts to promote
ERB will benefit from attending to the personal benefits derived from such
Before addressing this issue further, it is necessary to clear up two misunder
standings about self-interest. The first involves distinguishing self-interest from
selfishness. Self-interest is often devalued as a useful motive because it is, mistak
enly, equated with selfishness (Perloff, 1987). It is easy to confuse the two. How
ever, selfishly consuming resources or creating waste without concern for others is
quite different from taking care of yourself and maintaining your ability to function
effectively in a challenging and frequently chaotic world. The responsibility for
getting your own needs met, for gaining a sense of happiness or meaning from life,
for maintaining mental vitality and a positive outlook rests only with yourself. If
you do take care of yourself and can maintain a positive outlook, then you will be in
a much better position to take care of others who cannot take care of themselves
(e.g., people who are sick, children) or to advocate for the environment.
A further misunderstanding is the belief that self-interest is only about attain
ing personal happiness. The extreme of egoism is to believe that the only thing that
matters to us is our own happiness and that, by extension, we can never have
concern for another person or thing external to us. In their thoughtful book, Psy
chology’s Sanction for Selfishness, Wallach and Wallach (1983) clear up this mis
understanding by noting that our individual happiness can depend on what happens
to those things about which we care. They state that “we are satisfied or pleased if
we attain what we (really) want; we are made happy if something that we (really)
wish for comes to pass” (p. 201). Thus, although happiness is experienced person
ally, it is derived from attaining an outcome, any outcome, we care about. A per
sonal sense of satisfaction can be derived from such things as enhancing the
well-being of another person or the sustainability of an ecosystem. Framed in this
way, self-interest can be tied to a vast number of concerns, many directly relevant
to the promotion of ERB and some working with surprising effectiveness.
The Motive of Intrinsic Satisfaction
Research done on intrinsic satisfaction (De Young, 1985, 1986, 1993, 1996) is
consistent with the ideas about self-interest presented by Wallach and Wallach
(1983). People have reported that certain patterns of behavior are worth engaging
in because of the personal, internal contentment that engaging in these behaviors
provides. However, these behaviors often focus on issues outside the immediate
516 De Young
domain of the self (e.g., protecting the environment, enhancing community). Thus,
no ecocentric value need be presumed to account for ERB nor a sociocentric value
for helping the community. The ultimate effect may be environmentally or socially
beneficial, but the proximate mechanism is self-interest, here in a form called
Some researchers have equated intrinsic satisfaction with altruism. If we start
with the more traditional definition of altruism, an unselfish concern for others
often involving some level of personal sacrifice, and understand intrinsic satisfac
tion to focus on actions carried out for immediate, personal, and, some might say,
self-interested reasons, then clearly they are quite different motives. If, however,
an alternate definition is used, namely, that altruism involves getting pleasure from
helping behavior, then these are related motives.
The existence and structure of intrinsic satisfactions has emerged over the last
15 years of research on ERB (De Young, 1996). The intrinsic satisfaction catego
ries discussed below emerged from nine studies done during the past decade, with
some data published here for the first time. These studies investigated a variety of
environmentally responsible behaviors and populations using a common bank of
items on intrinsic satisfaction (see Table 1).
Three intrinsic satisfactions are relevant to the discussion of environmental
sustainability: (1) satisfaction derived from striving for behavioral competence,
(2) frugal, thoughtful consumption, and (3) participation in maintaining a commu
nity. A fourth, pleasure from luxuries, was included initially to check for construct
Table 1. Description of the Studies
Population studied Focus of study Reference
1 1990 159 Food store consumers Household source reduction De Young
et al., 1993
et al., 1993
Lee & De
2 1991 103 Food store consumers Household source reduction
3 1991 1,788 Taiwanese office workers Office recycling
4 1992 73 National Resources
Defense Council members
Environmental Protection Source reduction
Mothers and Others program
5 1993 169 Duncan, 1997
6 1995 113
Reduced consumption and
7 1996 109 College studentsb
8 1999 396 Homeowners
9 1999 1,413 Norwegian homeowners
aRandom sample of graduate and undergraduate students.
bStudents from a business school and a school of natural resources.
517 Motives for Environmentally Responsible Behavior
validity but has produced an interesting finding of its own. In each study the bank
of items measuring these intrinsic satisfactions was introduced with a stem ques
tion similar to “Please indicate how much satisfaction or enjoyment you get from
each of the following items.” Participants responded using a 5-point Likert rating
scale ranging from none to a very great deal. Participants rated how much satisfac
tion they receive from engaging in the activities listed. Factor analysis was used to
identify the categories. The items making up these four intrinsic satisfaction cate
gories are reported in Table 2. One fascinating finding to come out of these studies
is the coherent, multidimensional nature of intrinsic satisfactions. The participants
in the various studies report deriving not a single, all-inclusive sense of satisfaction
but numerous and specific satisfactions.
The first category includes satisfaction derived from striving for behavioral
competence. It includes participants’ enjoying being able to solve problems and
complete tasks. Competence was proposed by White (1959) as a basic human con
cern, an inclination to strive for ever more effective interactions with the environ
ment. Geller (1995a, 1995b) links competence with ERB when he includes
self-efficacy as a major component in his actively caring hypothesis. In White’s
conceptualization, competence has both a skill and motivational aspect. The stud
ies mentioned here measure not the ability to interact effectively (e.g., assessment
of specific skills or expertise) but the motive for developing and maintaining these
That humans would be motivated to develop behavioral competence is not, on
first glance, an impressive finding. What is fascinating, however, is that the partici
pants report deriving personal enjoyment from such effort and that this category
has generally been the most highly endorsed of all intrinsic satisfactions.
With survival having always depended on the careful stewardship of finite
resources, we might expect people to have come to recognize the sorts of lifestyles
in which such care was both possible and supported. However, it is not only impor
tant for people to recognize such patterns; they should also find them satisfying to
pursue. Thus, we could argue that satisfaction from frugality is at the core of ERB.
Once a commonplace virtue (Nash, 1998), frugality is needed now more than
ever. Yet, it need not be adopted solely on utilitarian grounds. As measured in these
studies, frugality is perceived by the participants as a satisfying activity worth pur
suing in it own right. Here we have an excellent instance of what Wallach and
Wallach (1983) are arguing for. The positive environmental benefits that pursuing
frugal behavior creates for both society and the ecosystem are the direct result of a
Table 2. Intrinsic Satisfaction Categories
N = 159
N = 103 N = 1,788 N = 73
N = 169
N = 113
N = 109
N = 396 N = 1,413
Category name and items included
Knowing how to finish a task
Remaining competent at meeting life’s challenges
Being good at the things I need to do
Learning how to solve most problems I face
Knowing what things I’m good at doing
Discovering new things I’m good at doing
Knowing the things I’m not competent at doing
Possessing many new things
Having better tools for life’s tasks
People would respect me
Finding ways to avoid waste
Keeping something running past its normal life
Finding ways to use things over and over
Repairing rather than throwing things away
Saving things I might need someday
Consuming a minimum amount of resources
Using technology to do things more efficiently
Developing ways to use resources more effectively
Taking actions that make life more simple
The things I buy would be well suited to the task
Buying items I need from a secondhand shop
Using the library rather than buying new books/mags
Taking actions which can change the world
Doing things that help bring order to the world
Helping to make sense out of the world
Doing things that matter in the long run
Fitting into our place in the natural scheme of things
Influencing how society solves problems
Having clothing that is in style
Having many items to choose from when purchasing
Having the luxuries and conveniences of our society
Being a citizen of a country with vast resources
Having new items to try, evaluate and buy
Using the latest consumer or electronic gadget
Being the first to own an unusual product
Note. Solid circles indicate items that loaded in the factor analysis; open circles indicate items included on the survey instrument but not meeting inclusion criteria.
Blanks indicate items not included on the survey instrument.
520 De Young
self-interested focus on achieving personal happiness. An ecocentric orientation is
not only consistent with self-interest, it may be derived from it.
Ellis and Gaskell (1978, as reported in Stern & Gardner, 1981) note that a
motive to conserve can come from as subtle a factor as direct participation. In our
studies, the participants consistently report deriving satisfaction from participation
in community activities and value opportunities to take action that makes a differ
ence in the end.
There is undoubtedly a prosocial inclination in people. This inclination seems
quite broad and genuine, not at all calculated. It certainly includes caring about the
welfare of other humans and helping them through hard times, but this inclination
should not be mistaken for altruism, for it also includes a broader range of concerns
(S. Kaplan, this issue). Included is an eagerness to share news, finding pleasure
from working with others toward a common goal, and, given the right conditions, a
willingness to expend considerable effort in developing positive relations with oth
ers and in sharing skills and knowledge. The inclination is as much about inter
acting with other people as it is about helping them. A central theme here is being
needed, of having the chance to make a contribution that is not optional but neces
sary. It seems that when people discern a role for themselves and become con
vinced that their efforts truly matter, a powerful motive force is unleashed (S.
The final category focuses on the satisfaction gained from having both the
conveniences of our modern society and access to new and novel products. This
category captures the satisfaction people derive from being part of a thriving soci
ety. Since this category tapped into behaviors that were the opposite of conserva
tion, it was initially included as a means of testing for construct validity. A more
useful finding emerged, however.
Early work on ERB suggested that the lifestyle we would soon need to adopt to
ensure sustainability would be austere, perhaps even somber. Environmental
responsibility was often portrayed as the behavioral equivalent of freezing in the
dark. We were told to expect neither comfort nor amenity in a sustainable society.
It is in this sense that satisfaction gained from luxuries might be considered to be in
conflict with other environmentally compatible satisfactions. However, the partic
ipants did not view satisfaction derived from luxury as the antithesis of satisfaction
gained from the other behavioral patterns. Although logic might suggest a negative
correlation between luxury and the other intrinsic satisfaction categories, no such
data have emerged. Thus, there is no inherent conflict between ERB and enjoying a
521 Motives for Environmentally Responsible Behavior
modest level of material well-being (De Young & Kaplan, 1985–86). This is a very
hopeful finding, for it suggests that there need not be extensive internal dissonance
as people begin a transition from a material-focused to a conservation-focused
Expanding on the Urge Toward Competence
Researchers have explored in detail whether attitude and subjective norms are
necessary and sufficient to cause behavior change (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). The
findings suggest that although attitudes and norms sometimes cause behavior
change, their influence is significantly reduced when we consider the effects of
other variables, including past experience with the behavior (Ajzen, 1991),
increased familiarity with the situation, and skill in carrying out the behavior
(Gray, 1985). Without considering these variables, we make the error of assuming
that once people know what they should do and why they should do it, they will
automatically know how to proceed. The issue here is an essential, underlying, and
yet sometimes overlooked aspect of behavior change: the need people have for,
and the satisfaction people derive from, a sense of competence.
When White (1959) proposed competence or “effectance” as a fundamental
human concern, he was arguing for an evolutionarily derived metamotive. Leff,
Gordon, and Ferguson (1974) support this claim and show that the research of De
Charms (1968, 1971) and J. W. Brehm (1966; S. Brehm & J. W. Brehm, 1981), as
well as reinterpretation of White’s own earlier research, provides a strong case for
believing that the human concern for competence is a primary source of motiva
tion. White also made claims about the intrinsic nature of competence. He argued
that the urge toward competence is self-initiating and self-rewarding (White, 1971)
and that behaviors associated with competence are highly focused activities that
are, in their essence, intrinsically reinforcing (Wandersman, 1979):
When this particular sort of activity is aroused in the nervous system, [competence] motiva
tion is being aroused, for it is characteristic of this particular sort of activity that it is selec
tive, directed, and persistent, and that instrumental acts will be learned for the sole reward of
engaging in it. (White, 1959, p. 323)
Thus, it is possible that a program built upon competence will achieve the durabil
ity common to intrinsically motivated behavior.
However, when considering the role of competence in behavior change, par
ticular attention should be paid to contextual issues. People find unpleasant and
thus avoid situations in which they cannot advance or utilize their competence.
When people are not sure how to proceed with a new behavior, they are easily over
whelmed. What seems to others a simple action may become for them a major chal
lenge. The issue here goes well beyond a lack of procedural knowledge. It can
involve not even knowing what the right questions to ask are. The study of human
behavior documents the negative impact of such a state of affairs (S. Kaplan & R.
522 De Young
Kaplan, 1982); when in such a circumstance people will avoid attempting a new
behavior regardless of genuine concern, positive attitude, strong social norm, or
external inducement. Yet, it is a mistake to describe such people as unmotivated.
They are strongly motivated by a desire to be competent. Unfortunately, in such a
circumstance, the most reasonable action for people to take might be to avoid try
ing anything. By ignoring the role competence plays in behavior change, we may
inadvertently create situations that cause not adoption of a new behavior but with
drawal and feelings of helplessness.
On a more positive note, the human urge toward competence may readily
explain the conditions under which people will consider adopting ERB. It may be
no more complicated than providing a context in which procedural information is
readily available and behavior can tentatively be tried in a supportive environment.
Such a situation would allow people to fulfill an innate desire to utilize and enhance
If, as White argues, competence is a fundamental motive, then it should
sometimes be apparent in the content of other motives. For instance, we might ask
whether it is possible to reframe the intrinsic satisfaction categories of frugality and
participation as issues of competence. In fact, both do contain the notion of
developing skills and abilities useful in taking care of the planet, at either the global
or the local scale. Frugality involves resource competence. Being proficient at
making things last is reported by the study participants as a valued skill.
Participation contains the theme of being effective at making a difference in one’s
community. There is satisfaction gained from being capable of bringing order to
chaos. Perhaps we might build upon the intrinsic satisfaction people gain from
being competent at doing things that have a positive effect in a larger context and
that matter in the long run.
Similarly, we should expect to find evidence that the urge toward competence
is predictive of ERB. Such evidence is emerging. In a study of observed ERB, pro
cedural knowledge was effective at differentiating known conservers from
nonconservers (De Young, 1988–89), and a study of household reuse and recycling
behavior found that although beliefs predicted self-reported ERB, competence
successfully predicted observed ERB (Corral-Verdugo, 1997).
The next challenge will be discovering how to use intrinsic satisfactions to
promote ERB. Reichel and Geller (1981) began this quest when they suggested
that if we expect and value ERB, then “such norms may even be internalized by
individuals so that conserving behaviors become intrinsically reinforced” (p. 88).
There is evidence that people’s intrinsic motives to conserve can be nurtured and
developed. Vining and Ebreo (1990) report that ERB can shift from being initiated
and maintained by extrinsic motives toward being influenced by intrinsic motives.
523 Motives for Environmentally Responsible Behavior
In a fascinating study that speaks directly to the durability issue, Werner and
Makela (1998) report that those individuals who actively reframed ERB to empha
size the derived satisfaction were more likely to conserve on both a short- and
In conclusion, it is clear that no single motive is optimal for promoting ERB.
No motive has universal appeal, works under all conditions or in all situations. No
motive is likely to meet both short- and long-term goals. The widespread promo
tion of ERB will require an understanding of the great diversity of motives people
find acceptable and empowering. Yet, given that there are a huge number of envi
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RAYMOND DE YOUNG is an Associate Professor of Environmental Psychology
and Conservation Behavior in the University of Michigan School of Natural
Resources and Environment. His research focuses on the psychology of
environmental stewardship, particularly the role of intrinsic motivation in
promoting conservation behavior. His current work is exploring the effect that
mental (attentional) vitality has on the promotion of psychological well-being and
environmentally responsible behavior and includes the study of the restorative
effects of time spent in natural settings.