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The Effect of Empathy in Proenvironmental Attitudes and Behaviors

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Abstract

Previous studies have pointed out the importance of empathy in improving attitudes toward stigmatized groups and toward the environment. In the present article, it is argued that environmental behaviors and attitudes can be improved using empathic perspective-taking for inducing empathy. Based on Batson’s Model of Altruism, it was predicted that higher levels of empathy would improve environmental attitudes and behaviors. It was also predicted that a causal model could be established between empathy and environmental attitudes and behaviors. A study using a factorial design (2 × 2) is reported on the relationship between empathy level (high or low), natural object viewed (bird or tree), and environmental attitudes and behaviors. The results of this study indicate that participants who showed a high empathy level displayed stronger environmental behaviors and attitudes. Additionally, a path analysis shows the moderating effects of evoking empathy for a natural object (bird or tree) on willingness to act in a way that protects the environment (attitudes and behaviors).
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Environment and Behavior
DOI: 10.1177/0013916508325892
2008;
2010; 42; 110 originally published online Dec 2,Environment and Behavior
Jaime Berenguer
The Effect of Empathy in Environmental Moral Reasoning
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110
The Effect of Empathy in
Environmental Moral
Reasoning
Jaime Berenguer
Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
Based on Batson’s Model of Altruism, in the present work it is argued that
moral reasoning about the environment (number of moral reasons given for
pro-environmental behaviors) can be improved by manipulating the emo-
tion of empathy. It is also argued that the argument of moral reasoning will
be different depending on whether the object of empathy is a natural object
(vulture) or a human being (young man). The present work reports a study
using a factorial design (2x2) with control group on the relationship
between empathy level (high or low), empathy object (vulture or young
man) and moral reasoning about ecological dilemmas. The reasoning was
evaluated using four different ecological moral dilemmas, with responses
coded in three categories (anthropocentric, ecocentric and nonvenviron-
mental). The results of the study indicate that participants who showed a
high empathy level provided more arguments of moral reasoning than those
in the low empathy group. When the object of empathy was a vulture the
number of moral arguments of an ecocentric nature increased; when it was
a young man the number of moral arguments of an anthropocentric nature
increased.
Keywords: empathy; perspective taking; environmental moral reasoning;
anthropocentrism; ecocentrism
I
n todays world, the very act of getting up and going through our morning rou-
tines has become a continuous and complex process of environment-related
decision-making. To leave the tap on or off while we shave or brush our teeth, to
take a quick shower or a long, relaxing bath, to use ordinary or low-energy bulbs, to
Environment and Behavior
Volume 42 Number 1
January 2010 110–134
© 2010 SAGE Publications
10.1177/0013916508325892
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Author’s Note: I dedicate this article to Rocio Martin, environmental psychologist, colleague,
and friend. I would like to acknowledge the help of David Weston in correcting the English in
this article. Address correspondence to Jaime Berenguer, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid,
Facultad de Psicología, Ctra. de Colmenar km. 12,500, 28049-Madrid, Spain; e-mail:
jaime.berenguer@uam.es.
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go to work on public transport or in our own car—these are some of the every-
day decisions millions of us, throughout the world, have to make. It is on the
aggregate of these and other decisions directly related to environmental behav-
ior that the achievement of a sustainable society depends. Thus, the idea of
achieving a sustainable society, and indeed the need for such a society, would
appear to involve individuals behaving in a responsible way in relation to the
environment.
In relation to the notion of a responsible society, a variety of theoretical
approaches and explanatory models have been applied within the tradition of
environmental psychology, with varying degrees of success. Of all these, per-
haps the most significant approach is the one that explains environmental
behavior as the result of altruistic behavior. In this tradition, the most influen-
tial model is the norm-activation model of altruism (Schwartz, 1977), on which
a great deal of work is based, especially the most important theoretical model
for explaining environmental behavior, which is the value-belief-norm theory
(Stern, Dietz, & Guagnano, 1995). Nevertheless, within the tradition of altru-
ism, other work has emerged (Berenguer, 2007; Shelton & Rogers, 1981;
Schultz, 2000) that has successfully tested other theories related to altruism and
empathy, such as the model of altruistic and prosocial behavior (Batson, 1991).
At the same time, other authors (Thøgersen, 2006) have shown the importance
of different theoretical models based on altruism and the empathetic capacity
of the human being for explaining the taxonomy of environmental norms.
Specifically, Thøgersen (2006) used cognitive moral development theory
(Kohlberg, 1984) and moral socialization theory (Hoffman, 2000) to explain
the features of personal norms and their influence on environmental behavior.
In sum, research has shown the growing importance of altruism and empathetic
processes in the explanation of behavior, attitudes, and personal norms in rela-
tion to the environment. However, these models differ in some important
respects, which should not be overlooked.
As already mentioned, within the altruism tradition (indeed, possibly
throughout the field), the most influential theoretical model in the explana-
tion of environmental attitudes and values is the norm-activation model of
altruism (Schwartz, 1977). According to this model, helping behavior
toward other human beings is the result of social and personal norms as
well as of the observer’s awareness of the consequences of his or her behav-
ior (or nonbehavior) for the target and the degree of responsibility the
observer ascribes to himself or herself. Schwartz proposed that rather than
thinking about broad social norms, we should consider more personal
norms (internalized rules of conduct that are socially learned vary among
individuals within the same society and direct behavior in particular situations).
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For Schwartz (1977), a personal norm is a self-expectation of a specific
action in a particular situation that is experienced as a feeling of moral
obligation. According to this definition, personal norms are complied with
for internal reasons, consistent with internalized values and norms.
From the perspective of Schwartz’s model, environmental behavior
would begin with the perception of a valued-other in need, and the instigat-
ing situations would be (self-administered) expectations of reward for help-
ing and punishment for not helping in that situation (feeling of guilt,
self-depreciation, loss of self-esteem, in case of violations; pride, enhanced
self-esteem, and other favorable self-evaluations in case of compliance; cf.
Reykowski, 1982; Thøgersen, 2006). In this case, the internal response is
related to complying (or not) with internal personal norms and personal
motives. Thus, in Schwartz’s model, the appearance of the helping behav-
ior depends on assessment of the welfare of valued others, the previous
existence of certain personal norms, and the degree to which the person
takes responsibility for that welfare. In this form of explaining altruistic
motivation, the term used has been egoistic motivation (Batson, 1991).
Researchers using Schwartz’s norm-activation theory for studying envi-
ronmental (helping) behavior have expanded the assumption in Schwarz’s
model that people have general altruistic value orientation, to include value
orientations that are egoistic and biospheric (Schultz, 2000; Schultz &
Zelezny, 1998; Snelgar, 2006; Stern, Dietz, & Kalof, 1993; Stern et al.,
1995). These authors have distinguished empirically between egoistic,
socioaltruistic, and biospheric value orientations and beliefs about the con-
sequences of environmental deterioration for oneself, for human beings in
general, and for nonhuman elements of the planet. Specifically, Stern and
his colleagues proposed an extended norm-activation model known as the
value-belief-norm theory, in which any individual may have all three of the
value orientations to a greater or a lesser extent. According to this theory
(value-belief-norm), behaviors are more likely to occur if individuals
believe that environmental attributes that are important for them can be
harmed and their behavior will prevent this happening. At least two aspects
of this model are worth highlighting. On one hand, as occurs in Schwartz’s
model, a valued-other-in-need is necessary, that is, the resulting behavior is
altruistic after the assessment of the valued other in need. On the other
hand, a novel aspect of the value-belief-norm model with respect to previ-
ous approaches is that it proposes three different objects or general cate-
gories of value orientation, namely, those corresponding to the perceiver
himself or herself (egoistic), to other human beings or groups of human
beings (altruistic), and to the environment as an entity in itself (biospheric).
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This distinction between different types of value orientation has also
been proposed by several studies that have categorized environmental val-
ues in similar ways—for example, homocentric, ecocentric, and egocentric
values (Merchant, 1992), or anthropocentric versus ecocentric values
(Eckersley, 1992; Thompson & Barton, 1994). Some authors (Kortenkamp
& Moore, 2001) argue that the distinction between anthropocentrism and
ecocentrism is perhaps the most important one for understanding the moral
consideration of nature because this is what determines the focus of the
environmental ethic: humans or nature.
The distinction between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism made by
Thompson and Barton (1994) rests on the claim that beliefs about environ-
mental issues and the way in which people understand the relationship with
the environment can be simplified by distinguishing between two kinds of
motives or values that underlie support for environmental issues. First,
anthropocentric motives, based on the idea that nature should be protected
because of its value in maintaining or enhancing quality of life for human
beings. On this view, the environment would have no intrinsic moral value.
Second, ecocentric motives, based on the notion that nature should be pro-
tected because it deserves protection for its own sake. Thus, the moral con-
sideration of nature from the ecocentric perspective would be related to its
intrinsic value, independently of its usefulness to humans. In contrast to the
approaches previously cited, according to this view, the egoistic and
socioaltruistic dimensions would form a part of a single dimension focused
on the individual (anthropocentric), whereas the biospheric dimension
would refer to a focus on the value of nature itself (ecocentric).
From a theoretical point of view, the distinction between anthropocen-
trism and ecocentrism implies different behavioral results. Thus, Nordlund
and Garvill (2003) pointed out that there are theoretical reasons to expect
that an anthropocentric value orientation does not lead to a perceived
moral obligation to act to protect the environment to the same extent as an
ecocentric value orientation, because anthropocentric beliefs affect per-
ceptions and actions regarding the environment and our relationship with
it (Thompson & Barton, 1994). Those who hold anthropocentric beliefs
will not always act in a proenvironmental manner (Thompson & Barton,
1994), insofar as they would and thus be less likely to want to protect the
environment if other, human-centered values were involved (Nordlund &
Garvill, 2003).
In an interesting study, Kortenkamp and Moore (2001) used four differ-
ent environmental dilemmas to study the constructs of anthropocentrism
and ecocentrism in relation to ethical reasoning about nature, carrying out
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two experiments to assess the effect of two situational variables on moral
reasoning about the environment. In the first experiment, with a 2 × 2 fac-
torial design, the authors manipulated the information (awareness of the
consequences in the Schwartz model) that participants received about an
environmental problem (additional information on how environmental
damage would affect the environment or humans). The results of this first
experiment showed that moral reasoning about the environment was influ-
enced by the kind of information received. Thus, providing information on
the environmental impact of actions did induce participants to think more
about the environment. However, when the authors provided information
on how environmental damage would affect humans, no effects were found
on moral considerations about the environment. In the second experiment,
Kortenkamp and Moore manipulated the presence of social and land-use
information in the environmental dilemmas. The results of the second
experiment showed that the presence (or absence) of information related to
land use and social conflict influenced the use of ecocentric reasoning.
When one of them was present (and the other absent) in the moral dilemma,
the participants used more ecocentric (and less ecocentric) moral reasoning.
In the discussion of their research, these authors pointed out that the results
showed a very strong influence of situational (information) variables on
environmental ethical reasoning (Kortenkamp & Moore, 2001). According
to the results of this study, environmental ethical reasoning is affected both
by the information the person has (of a cognitive type in the first case) and
on the aspect of an environmental problem on which the person’s attention
is focused, that is, on land use or social conflict. In their explanation of
these results, Kortenkamp and Moore referred to the possibility that agri-
cultural land may not be viewed as a part of nature because ecocentric rea-
soning requires a focus on the intrinsic value of nature, and if agricultural
land is not considered as nature there can be no ecocentric reasoning. Thus,
the presence of social conflict issues elicits less ecocentric and more nonen-
vironmental reasoning. Salient social issues seem to attract people’s focus
away from thinking about land issues.
Apart from the research already mentioned, other works based on the
altruistic approach (Berenguer, 2007; Shelton & Rogers, 1981; Schultz,
2000) have also emerged as extremely useful in explaining environmental
behaviors and attitudes using the model of altruistic and prosocial behavior
(Batson, 1991) as a theoretical framework. In this model, altruistic behav-
ior would be explained by empathy, which refers to an emotional response
congruent with the perceived welfare of another. Batson, Chang, Orr, and
Rowland (2002) pointed out that taking the perspective of a person in need
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 115
and imagining how that person is affected by his or her plight would stim-
ulate emotions of sympathy, compassion, and tenderness, improving atti-
tudes toward different objects and groups, such as AIDS victims, the
homeless and racial and ethnic minorities (Batson et al., 1997; Finlay &
Stephan, 2000; Stephan & Finlay, 1999).
As is the case for the norm-activation model of altruism (Schwartz,
1977), the model of altruistic and prosocial behavior (Batson, 1991) corre-
sponds to an altruistic conception of behavior and begins with the percep-
tion of another in need (not necessarily valued as in Schwartz’s model). In
Batson’s model, the instigating situation is the adoption of the other’s per-
spective (perspective taking), which involves more than simply focusing
attention on the other. Adopting the needy person’s perspective involves
imagining how that person (or animal) is affected by the situation. In this
case, perceiving another’s need is claimed to lead to a unique internal
response: a feeling of empathy. Dovidio, Allen, and Schroeder (1990)
revealed that inducing empathy does not simply activate a general disposi-
tion to help, rather increases the motivation to help relieve the specific need
for which empathy is felt. In contrast to Schwartz’s model, the most impor-
tant component in Batson’s model is an emotional one, not requiring the
presence of personal norms or valued others. Batson acknowledges that
empathetic feelings can arise when a valued other is threatened (the case of
Schwartz’s model), but argues that on other occasions empathetic feelings
are the result of emotions such as sympathy, compassion, and the like.
Two theories from developmental psychology offer additional sugges-
tions about the effect of empathy in environmental (helping) behavior. The
cognitive moral development theory (Kohlberg, 1984) proposes that moral-
ity depends on cognitive development and reasoning ability in relation to
considerations about the context and the results of the behavior, that is, the
ability to focus attention on below the surface aspects of a situation
(Thøgersen, 2006). Hence, taking somebody else’s perspective—a crucial
aspect of moral judgment–means going beyond the superficial. On the other
hand, the moral socialization theory (Hoffman, 2000) focuses on the impor-
tance of empathetic feelings for moral development. This theory proposes
that human beings are born with a predisposition to experience empathy.
This psychological resource is activated and cultivated by socialization
agents (parents and others) pointing out the consequences of a transgres-
sion for the one being hurt and how it makes the hurt one feel. Kohlberg and
Hoffman’s theories can be viewed as complementary accounts of the devel-
opment of moral judgment and norms (Gibbs, 1991, 2003). Both emphasize
the need for learning and perspective taking in moral development; whereas
Kohlberg highlights the importance of abstract reasoning based on an
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116 Environment and Behavior
understanding of the consequences of one’s behavior and the context,
Hoffman assigns more weight to inductive learning, to the impact produced
by specific perspective taking and to the person’s capacity for empathy
(Thøgersen, 2006). What emerges from these two theoretical contributions
is the connection between empathy and moral reasoning.
Empirically, the effect of empathy has been shown to improve environ-
mental attitudes and behaviors (Berenguer, 2007; Shelton & Rogers, 1981;
Schultz, 2000). For example, Shelton and Rogers (1981) reported a positive
relationship between participants receiving role-taking instructions to
increase empathy toward whales and favorable attitudes to helping whales,
compared to the case of those who did not receive such instructions.
Likewise, Schultz (2000) found that participants who were instructed to
take the perspective of an animal harmed by pollution (perspective taking)
scored significantly higher in environmental motives (biospheric environ-
mental concern) than those participants who received the instruction to
remain objective. In another study, Berenguer (2007) showed the impor-
tance of empathy in environmental attitudes and behaviors. Using a factor-
ial design (2 × 2), he manipulated empathy level (high or low) and harmed
natural object viewed (bird or tree). The results showed that, compared to
individuals not induced to feel empathy, those induced to do so recom-
mended allocating more funds to an environmental protection association
and showed stronger empathetic feelings and attitudes toward the natural
object and nature as a whole. In the same article, using a path analysis tech-
nique, evidence was provided that increased helping behavior (funds) and
more favorable attitudes toward nature as a whole were mediated by the
effect of empathy on attitudes toward the natural object.
The Present Research
Previous models and studies have shown that environmental behavior and
attitudes and empathetic feelings can emerge when a valued other is threat-
ened, or the perspective of a person or animal in plight is adopted. It has also
been shown that moral reasoning about the environment (anthropocentric or
ecocentric reasoning) is influenced by the kind of information received
(awareness of consequences and information related to land use and social
conflict). Likewise, previous work shows the close relationship between taking
someone elses perspective, empathetic feelings, and moral judgment.
Based on such research, and from the perspective of the present work,
we can expect at least two effects. First, taking the perspective of another
in need will improve attitudes and behaviors toward different objects and
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 117
groups; perspective taking and empathetic feelings will be related to moral
judgment. Thus, it is to be expected that manipulating empathy toward an
object of attitude will have an effect on the number of moral arguments on
which behavior is based. Second, an individual’s moral reasoning (anthro-
pocentric or ecocentric) will depend on situational variables, such as the
kind of information received, although ecocentric reasoning will be less
likely to induce a desire to protect the environment if other, human-centered
values are affected or the intrinsic value of nature is not focused upon. This
leads us to expect that the type of moral argument expressed by participants
in an environmental decision task will depend on the object focused upon
(human being –anthropomorphic– or vulture –ecomorphic) and for which
empathy is previously manipulated.
With this aim, a factorial experiment (2 high/low empathy × 2 object of
empathy young man/vulture) was designed along with a control group. Two
objects of empathy were selected, a young man and a vulture. These were
shown to participants by means of a computer presentation simulating a
newspaper item about something that had happened to the object in ques-
tion and a picture (young man or vulture). In either case, the story was
exactly the same, the only difference being that in one case it referred to a
young man (as the object of empathy) and in the other to a vulture. Prior to
presentation of the newspaper item, participants received instructions on
the point of view they should adopt (perspective taking). In the high empa-
thy condition, they received instructions to take the perspective of the
object about which they would read in the news item. In this condition, par-
ticipants were to think about the consequences and try to imagine how the
object (vulture or young man) felt in relation to what had happened to it or
him, and how this had affected its or his life. In the low empathy condition,
participants received instructions to try and adopt an objective point of view
and not to become trapped by the consequences of what had occurred or
how the object of empathy felt.
Once they had read the story, participants were asked to resolve four
types of environmental dilemma taken from the work of Kortenkamp and
Moore (2001). The control group did not receive any instructions about the
perspective to adopt and were not given a news story to read, but they were
required to resolve the environmental dilemmas.
Research Issues
Taking into account the previous studies mentioned above, the first objective
of the present study was to explore the effect of empathy on moral reasoning
about the environment. In this regard, the following predictions were made:
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Prediction 1: Individuals in the high empathy condition, compared to those
in the low empathy condition, will show a greater number of moral argu-
ments for resolving environmental dilemmas.
Prediction 2: Individuals in the high empathy condition, compared to those
in the low empathy condition, will show a greater number of ecocentric
moral arguments when the object of attitude is a vulture.
Prediction 3: Individuals in the high empathy condition, compared to those
in the low empathy condition, will show a greater number of anthropocen-
tric moral arguments when the object of attitude is a young man.
In sum, it is hypothesized that the aspects of empathy influence moral
reasoning about environmental ethics. If empathy for the animal (vulture)
were enhanced, participants would use more ecocentric reasoning. In turn,
if empathy for humans (young man) were enhanced, participants would use
more anthropocentric reasoning.
Method
Participants
The participants were 126 (71 women, 55 men, mean age of 20.19 years)
students at the Autónoma University in Madrid (Spain). They received
credits toward a course requirement for taking part in the experiment. Using
a blocked assignment procedure, 25 participants were randomly assigned to
each of the four experimental conditions: empathy (low/high) and object of
empathy (young man /vulture). A control group of 26 participants was also
included, but those in this group received no empathy instructions and did
not read a story. All participants were treated in accordance with the Ethical
Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.
Procedure
The study was presented as a practical task within the social psychology
course. It was explained to participants that the task was part of a research
project being carried out by another teacher at the psychology faculty on lit-
erary style in the news media. Once the task had been explained and any
doubts dealt with, the students listed down their names, setting a date and
time to come to the laboratory. On arrival at the laboratory, the participants
received instructions from the experimenter and were told that in each of
the individual booths, they would find a computer already switched on
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 119
(with a blank screen) and a booklet with written material that included
the instructions they were to follow throughout the experiment. It was
explained to them that if they failed to understand any of the instructions,
they could ask the experimenter at any point in the study. Finally, partici-
pants were required to sign a formal agreement to take part in the study (all
of them agreed).
Manipulation of Empathy
Once participants had given their written consent to take part in the
experiment they received the perspective-taking instructions. In the high
empathy condition, the instructions were as follows:
You will now read a text including a story about a young man or vulture, and
you will see his or its image in a photograph. As you read the text and look
at the photo, try to imagine how the young man or vulture feels about what
has happened to him or it, and how it has affected his or its life. Try to feel
the consequences of everything the young man or vulture has had to go
through and how this has made him or it feel.
For the participants in the low empathy condition, the instructions were
as follows:
You will now read a text including a story about a young man or vulture and
you will see his or its image in a photograph. As you read the text and look
at the photo, try to adopt an objective point of view toward what is being
described in the news story. Try not to dwell on how the young man or vul-
ture might feel, but rather to remain objective and neutral.
Manipulation of the Object of Empathy
Once the participants had read the instructions, the experimenter asked
them whether they had any questions and whether they had understood the
instructions, dealing with any difficulties they might have. Next, partici-
pants pressed a key on the computer and the fictitious news item appeared,
along with a photograph of the object of empathy (young man or vulture).
The story in the news item is shown in Appendix A. The news item was for-
matted to look as though it were a story provided by an agency and printed
in the newspaper. The presentation of the news story, using the Microsoft
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120 Environment and Behavior
PowerPoint 2000 program on a 15 inch SVGA monitor, lasted 70 s, after
which the screen went blank.
Measuring Empathetic Feelings
Once participants had read the news story, they returned to the instruc-
tion booklet and responded to two measures for checking the validity of the
experimental manipulation. They were presented with two questions about
their objectivity and imagination on reading the news item, to check
whether there had been correct manipulation of the empathetic condition.
To the questions, “To what extent did you try to remain objective about
the news item you read?” and “To what extent did you try to imagine the
feelings of the young man or vulture in relation to what you read in the
news item?, they responded on a 9-point scale (1 = not at all, 9 = a lot).
Moreover, they responded to a questionnaire that listed 20 adjectives
describing emotional states and were used to assess empathetic feelings
toward the object of empathy (young man or vulture). On this scale, partic-
ipants had to indicate the intensity of the emotion they had felt toward
the object of empathy as they read the story (1 = none at all, 7 = extreme
intensity). The questionnaire includes six adjectives employed in previous
studies (see Batson, 1991, for a review) for evaluating empathy: sympa-
thetic, compassionate, soft-hearted, warm, tender, and moved.
Measuring Moral Reasoning
About Ecological Commons Dilemmas
In the next step, participants received a second booklet that included four
environmental dilemmas used in previous studies (Kortenkamp & Moore,
2001), adapted and translated for Spanish samples. The dilemmas used
referred to four environmental issues: overgrazing a common, logging old
growth stands, cutting firewood in a protected forest, and building a new
landfill (see Appendix B). The order of presentation of the dilemmas in the
booklets was counterbalanced. Once the participants had been given the
booklet with the four environmental dilemmas, they were asked to decide
whether the main character should support or perform an environmentally
harmful action. They then had to explain the reasons for their decision. They
were required to give at least one reason and a maximum of 10. Following
the same procedure as Kortenkamp and Moore (2001), the moral considera-
tions given by the participants were coded in three categories: anthropocen-
tric, ecocentric, and nonenvironmental. The response was coded as
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anthropocentric if it proposed preserving nature to benefit humans or
because humans cannot survive without nature. An example of an anthro-
pocentric consideration is, “He should not graze more cattle on the common
pasture because in the long term, it will lead to his own ruin and that of all
the other herders. The response was coded as ecocentric if it referred to the
rights or intrinsic value of nature or proposed protecting nature for natures
sake. An example of an ecocentric consideration is, “He should oppose cut-
ting down the forest because it will destroy the natural habitat of many ani-
mals. Finally, the nonenvironmental category was used to code the
responses referring to social contracts, guilt, or truthfulness. An example of
a nonenvironmental consideration is, “He should not graze more cattle on
the common pasture because he has an agreement with the other herders,
even though it is unwritten. As in previous works (Kortenkamp & Moore,
2001), 20% of the questionnaires were coded by a second experimenter,
independently and blindly (percentage agreement = 91.7). Disagreements
were resolved by using the decisions of the primary coder.
Debriefing
Once the participants had completed all the tasks, the experimenter met
each participant individually to check whether he or she had had any type
of doubt or suspicion during the course of the experiment, or if he or she
had misunderstood any part of it. Two participants were excluded as a result
of these interviews. As soon as the experiment was over, the participants
were informed about the aims and conditions of the study.
Results
Effectiveness of the Manipulation of Empathy
This was checked in two ways. First, through the questions about the
degree to which participants, on reading the story, had remained objective
or had imagined the feelings of the object of empathy (young man or vul-
ture). In line with what was expected, the means in objectivity were signif-
icantly lower in the high empathy condition (M = 2.60) than in the low
empathy condition (M = 7.28), t(98) = 22.92, p < .000. Likewise, the scores
were in accordance with what was expected on assessing feelings toward
the objects of attitude, being significantly higher in the high empathy con-
dition (M = 7.66) than in that of low empathy (M = 2.80), t(98) = –24.15,
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p < .000. There were no differences according to gender. However, differ-
ences were found in relation to the object of attitude, participants being
more capable of imagining the feelings when the story referred to the young
man (M = 5.78) than when it referred to the vulture (M = 4.68), t(98) = 2.12,
p <.05. There were no interaction effects between gender and the object of
attitude.
The second form of checking the effectiveness of the manipulation of
empathy was through analysis of the questionnaire on empathetic feelings
toward the objects of empathy. The instrument used was a questionnaire
adapted for Spanish samples (Berenguer, 2007) that included the six empa-
thy adjectives (sympathetic, compassionate, softhearted, warm, tender, and
moved) employed by Batson (Cronbach’s alpha = .909, N = 100). The
results were in line with the predictions of the manipulation, because par-
ticipants in the high empathy condition obtained significantly higher scores
on the scale (M = 5.32) than those in the low empathy condition (M = 4.11),
t(98) = –5.30, p < .000. There were no differences by gender, or in relation
to the object of empathy. In view of these results, it was concluded that the
manipulation of empathy was effective.
Preliminary Analyses
Next, we assessed participants’ responses to the question about whether
the main character should support or perform an environmentally harmful
action. For this purpose, we calculated the percentages of responses for the
ecological dilemmas (4 dilemmas × 100 participants). The results show that
86.25% (345) of the responses proposed supported responsible environ-
mental behavior, whereas just 5.25% (21) supported an environmentally
harmful action (8.5% or 34 participants failed to respond). We then checked
whether there were any differences in participants’ responses according
to the empathy condition (high or low) and object of empathy condition
(vulture, young man, and control). No significant differences were found.
We also calculated the relative frequency of the different types of moral
reasoning in the set of environmental dilemmas studied. To carry out this
analysis, an index was calculated for each type of reasoning (anthropocen-
tric, ecocentric, and nonenvironmental). These indices were calculated
based on the responses in each of the four dilemmas. Therefore, each index
represents the sum of the responses in that category for the four environ-
mental dilemmas employed. The results of this first analysis show signifi-
cant differences in the total number of reasons given by the participants.
Specifically, the results of the mixed one-way ANOVA indicate significant
122 Environment and Behavior
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differences, F(2, 98) = 17.16, p < .000. in the number of reasons from the
three categories. More anthropocentric (M = 3.21, SD = 1.61) and ecocen-
tric (M = 3.03, SD = 1.55) reasons are given than nonenvironmental reasons
(M = 2.17, SD = 1.28), Bonferroni test, p < .05.
Effect of Empathy on Moral Reasoning
To evaluate the effects of the manipulation of empathy on moral reasoning
about the environment we checked the effect of this manipulation on (a) the
total number of moral arguments listed by the participants (Prediction 1)
and (b) the relative number of moral arguments (by category) listed by the
participants for each object of empathy—vulture (Prediction 2) and young
man (Prediction 3).
To check the effect of empathy on the total number of moral arguments
listed by the participants, we calculated a variable resulting from the total
sum of arguments (anthropocentric, ecocentric, and nonenvironmental) in
the four dilemmas. We then proceeded to calculate the difference of means
for independent samples, empathy (high vs. low) being the grouping vari-
able and number of moral arguments the dependent variable. As expected
(Prediction 1), the number of moral arguments in the high empathy condi-
tion (M = 9.48) was significantly greater than in the low empathy condition
(M = 7.87), t(95) = –3.19, p < .005.
Next, we examined the effect of empathy on the number of moral argu-
ments when the object of empathy was manipulated (vulture vs. young
man). First, we looked at the effect when the object of empathy was the nat-
ural object (vulture). To this end, we considered the data referring to the
vulture story and carried out a mixed ANOVA, 3 (level of empathy) × 3
(categories of moral reasoning), with number of moral arguments listed by
participants as the dependent variable. The results confirm significant
between-subject differences for the high/low empathy and control condi-
tions in type of moral reasoning used, F(2, 71) = 6.16, p < .005. There are
also within-subject differences between the moral reasoning categories,
F(2,71) = 22.61, p < .000, and in the interaction effect between moral rea-
soning and empathetic condition F(4, 69) = 8.87, p < .000. The comparison
between these interaction conditions (moral reasoning and level of empa-
thy) shows significant differences in the number of ecocentric reasons listed
by participants between the high empathy condition (M = 4.87, SD =.273)
and those of low empathy (M = 2.87, SD = .278) and control (M = 2.69,
SD = .262), Bonferroni test p < .05 (see Figure 1). There were no signifi-
cant differences in the rest of the moral reasoning categories. These results
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124 Environment and Behavior
support the second prediction, confirming that in situations of high empa-
thy toward an animal (vulture), there is an increase in the number of eco-
centric reasons by comparison with the low empathy and control groups.
Next, we explored whether situations of high empathy with a human
being (young man) generated a greater number of anthropocentric reasons
than the conditions of low empathy and control. To this end, we proceeded
in the same way as in the previous analysis. The result of the mixed
ANOVA, 3 (level of empathy) × 3 (categories of moral reasoning), for the
story about the human being (young man) showed a significant effect in the
between-subject comparison in the high/low empathy and control condi-
tions, F(2, 74) = 3.44, p < .05. The within-subject comparisons show sig-
nificant differences between the moral reasoning categories, F(2, 74) =
25.62, p < .000, as well as in the interaction between moral reasoning and
empathetic condition, F(4, 71) = 7.63, p < .005. Comparison between these
interaction conditions (moral reasoning and level of empathy) reveals sig-
nificant differences in the number of anthropocentric reasons, with a greater
Figure 1
Mean Number of Moral Arguments Used and Empathy Level When
Object of Empathy Was a Stimulus From Nature (Vulture)
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 125
number of anthropocentric arguments in the high empathy condition (M =
4.76, SD = .295) than in those of low empathy (M = 3.52, SD = .295) and
control (M = 2.54, SD = .290), Bonferroni test p < .05. No differences were
found in the rest of the comparisons. These results support the third predic-
tion, which was that in situations of high empathy toward a human being,
the number of anthropocentric arguments would be greater than in the low
empathy condition (see Figure 2).
Discussion
A conceptual analysis of the informative function of empathetic emotion
and moral reasoning about the environment led us to propose that moral
reasoning about the environment could depend on situational variables such
as valuing the welfare of others in need (level of empathy) and the empa-
thy object focused on (young man or vulture). We carried out an experiment
to test this idea, which was supported by the findings of the experiment.
More specifically, the results revealed that an increase in empathy for
an object of attitude led to a significant increase in the number of moral
arguments people used in relation to an environmental behavior. Likewise,
the results showed that when the object of empathy was a vulture (a nat-
ural object), participants in the high empathy condition significantly
increased the number of moral arguments of an ecocentric nature com-
pared to the low empathy and control groups, although there were no dif-
ferences for the rest of the moral arguments (i.e., anthropocentric and
nonenvironmental). Furthermore, the results showed that when the object
of attitude was a human being (young man), those in the high empathy
condition significantly increased the number of arguments of an anthropo-
metric nature compared to the low empathy and control groups, with no
differences found for the other types of moral argument (i.e., ecocentric
and nonenvironmental).
These results suggest that despite the fact that research in environmental
psychology has rarely considered the possibility of a relationship between
the empathy emotion and the quantity and type of environmental moral
arguments, there is indeed a link between values and emotions in environ-
ment-related decision-making. This is of considerable relevance, above all,
in view of the fact that the effects of affective states on evaluative judg-
ments are often presented as more dysfunctional than functional (Batson,
Turk, Shaw, & Klein, 1995).
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126 Environment and Behavior
Previous studies on environmental attitudes and behaviors based on
Schwartz’s norm-activation model of altruism have shown the importance
of value orientations and beliefs about the consequences of environmental
deterioration in environmental behavior. Authors such as Stern point out
that, in line with the value–belief–norm theory, environmental behaviors
are more likely to occur if the individual believes that environmental attrib-
utes will have adverse consequences for his or her valued object(s) and that
he or she could reduce the threat and has personal norms for such behav-
iors (egoistic motivation). Some research (Kortenkamp & Moore, 2001) has
shown the importance of situational variables (inclusion of information
about environmental and human impact) in environmental ethical reason-
ing. These authors demonstrated that the inclusion of information about
environmental impact elicited more ecocentric and anthropocentric and less
Figure 2
Mean Number of Moral Arguments Used and Empathy Level When
Object of Empathy Was a Social Stimulus (Young Man)
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 127
nonenvironmental reasoning. They argued, “It is clearly difficult to take the
interests of the environment into consideration if those interests and the
effects on them are either not known or not salient. Work in this line, from
a clearly cognitive perspective, has provided sufficient evidence of a link
between, on one hand, knowledge of the consequences of environmental
deterioration, and on the other, people’s environmental behavior, attitudes,
and reasoning. It is not surprising, therefore, that a good deal of environ-
ment-related work has focused on increasing the quantity and type of envi-
ronmental information made available, on the expectation of increasing one
or more components of the value–belief–norm model.
Is it possible to establish the same link between the empathy emotion
(altruistic motivation) and people’s environmental behavior, attitudes, and
reasoning?
The first part of this question has already been answered by previous
studies, which have shown the effectiveness of empathy for generating
proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors. The research shows that induc-
ing empathy is a useful and powerful technique for creating attitudes of
environmental responsibility ( Shelton & Rogers, 1981; Schultz, 2000) and
encouraging environmental behaviors, suggesting that Batson’s model on
empathy can be applied to the environmental field (Berenguer, 2007).
As regards the relationship between empathy and environmental reason-
ing, the results of the present work provide clear findings that are largely in
accordance with those of previous research on moral reasoning.
As far as the relationship between empathy and number of moral argu-
ments is concerned, Kortenkamp and Moore (2001) suggested that environ-
mental moral reasoning could be influenced by situational variables, such
as amount of information available about the environmental and human
damage that can be caused by environmental behavior, and underlined the
need for people to be aware of this information if it were to affect their
moral reasoning. In this sense, Kohlberg’s (1984) and Hoffman’s (2000)
theories pointed out that inducing empathy focuses the person’s attention
on the needs of the object of empathy, generating the required perception of
it. In this regard, it should be borne in mind that emotions add at least three
aspects to the understanding of values and goals (Batson et al., 1995),
because they can function as a second channel of information supplement-
ing information based on rational belief and inference, provide a kind of
validity check on beliefs, and be attention getting, insofar as they involve
physiological arousal.
Thus, it makes sense to expect that the manipulation of empathy will
increase the number of moral arguments underpinning an environmental
behavior, as shown by the results of the present study.
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128 Environment and Behavior
With regard to the relationship between the object of empathy and type of
moral argument used, the results show the differential presence of ecocentric
and anthropocentric arguments depending on the object of empathy, in line
with the hypothesis proposed by Kortenkamp and Moore (2001). These authors
expected a positive relationship between the type of information people focused
their attention on and the kind of moral reasoning employed. Thus, the presence
of information about the effect of environmental harm on nature would gener-
ate a greater number of ecocentric arguments, whereas the presence of informa-
tion about the effect of environmental harm on human beings would generate a
greater number of anthropocentric arguments. It is therefore also to be assumed
that the type of moral argumentation a person employs will be in accordance
with the object of empathy. Such argumentation will be largely ecocentric when
the person focuses on the problems and needs of an animal and largely anthro-
pocentric when the focus is on the problems of a human being.
Some important considerations emerge in relation to these results. First,
the evidence that generating empathy about a natural object increases the
number of ecocentric arguments is even more striking if we bear in mind
that the story used in the present study was about a bird, which as a species
is fairly distant from the human being. And that, indeed, of all birds, the
vulture has one of the most negative social connotations, being used as a
metaphor (given the behavior of bird itself) for mean-spirited human behav-
ior, unscrupulously taking advantage of a situation for its gain.
Our results could also have important applied implications, on opening
up the possibility of working with emotion and altruistic motivation as a
source of change in environmental moral reasoning. In this regard, Batson
et al. (1995) pointed out that the informative function of the empathy emo-
tion can be found in relation to either valuing another person’s (animal)
welfare or perceiving that person (or animal) to be in need (the possibility
tested in the present study). Batson et al. also stressed that people can use
the awareness of their empathetic feelings, of their level of empathetic
response, to infer the degree to which they value the welfare of a person
(animal) in need. As Batson remarks in that same work, if valuing another’s
welfare is inferred from empathetic feelings, then this inference would
appear to be potentially important because values are more enduring. The
latter aspect is clearly a candidate for study in future research.
Another applied implication of the results is related to the role played by
the object of empathy. As our results show, when empathy is focused on the
vulture, the arguments are largely ecocentric; whereas in the case of the
young man, the arguments are largely anthropocentric. This finding should
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 129
be studied in more depth and taken into account in the design of environ-
mental campaigns, because focusing environmental concern on the conse-
quences of environmental degradation for human beings would be
generating anthropocentric perspectives, according to which problems of
nature are important for the individual only insofar as they affect him or her
or a valued other. This effect may underlie the results of some studies that
reveal a weak relationship between knowledge about environmental prob-
lems and individuals’ environmental behaviors and beliefs. For example,
Heath and Gifford (2006) stressed the lack of fit between scientific infor-
mation on the seriousness of climatic change and the beliefs of the general
public. These authors presented a review of different studies showing this
discrepancy in different types of sample and studied the effect of free-
market ideology on environmental degradation. The data from this work
showed ecocentrism to be positively correlated with beliefs about conse-
quences, behavioral intention, and self-efficacy, and negatively correlated
with free-market ideology. The authors concluded that the relationship
between support for free-market ideology and beliefs about global climate
change is mediated by environmental apathy and suggested different possi-
ble explanations for the results. In this case, it would be interesting to
explore whether the results might be partially explained by the object of
empathy on which the person is focusing (environment vs. free market).
The data from the second study by Kortenkamp and Moore (2001) may be
supporting this idea, because they showed that the presence (or absence) of
information related to land use and social conflict influenced the use of eco-
centric reasoning. When one of them was present (and the other absent) in
the moral dilemma, the participants used more ecocentric and less ecocen-
tric moral reasoning. As Kortenkamp and Moore pointed out, ecocentric
reasoning requires a focus on the intrinsic value of nature, and individu-
als would be less likely to want to protect the environment if other, human-
centered values interfered (Nordlund & Garvill, 2003).
The present study has some limitations similar to those indicated in relation
to previous work (Kortenkamp & Moore, 2001). First of all, it could be
pointed out that it would be advantageous to use other types of sample than
the one used (university students), such as the general population, urban or
rural respondents, land managers or land users, with a view to examining the
permanence of the effect found. Another possible limitation concerns the type
of dilemmas employed. In this study, we opted to use dilemmas already tested
in previous work and established within the scientific literature. But these
dilemmas may be unsuitable for samples of city dwellers. As previous works
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130 Environment and Behavior
have shown (Berenguer, Corraliza, & Martín, 2005), place of residence (rural
or urban) may affect environmental measures on attitudes and behaviors if
these lack relevance. Specifically, these authors stressed the need to use mea-
sures of attitude and behavior that adequately represent the true ecological
niche of the participants. In the present case, given that the sample used is of
city dwellers, the dilemmas may be out of touch with their everyday reality.
Nevertheless, in this regard, it should be recalled that the effect of empathy
found in our study is in itself sufficiently robust in comparison to the situation
of low empathy and the control condition. We indeed considered the possibil-
ity of working with dilemmas created by the participants themselves, although
this methodology leads to considerable variation in the type and number of
dilemmas produced (Kortenkamp & Moore, 2001) and makes it enormously
difficult to control intervening variables.
In sum, the present work shows the effect of empathy on environmental
moral reasoning. These results have a clear applied value, on permitting the
use of empathy in processes of moral reasoning about the environment and
individuals’ decision making. In this sense, the manipulation of empathy
has shown itself to be effective in the possibility of generating sufficient
attention toward the problems of others (persons or animals) and thus moti-
vating proenvironmental moral reasoning.
Appendix A
(Vulture/Young man) left paralyzed after being hit by car.
20 minutes. 25.09.2006—09:04 hr
Hit by speeding car.
Rushed to (animal hospital/hospital).
Is paralyzed (and will be unable to fend for itself/from the waist down for life).
Agencia (Efe)
A griffon vulture/young man was seriously injured yesterday in an accident near El
Boalo (Madrid).
The vulture/young man suffered severe spinal injuries after being involved in a
collision with a speeding car in the North-Eastern National Park region.
A mobile intensive care unit was sent to the scene and the animal/man was taken to
the animal hospital/regional hospital where it/he is receiving treatment.
According to hospital spokesman, Roberto Suárez, the initial indications are that the
vulture/the young man “is severely paralyzed and will no longer be able to fend
for itself/is likely to be paralyzed for life from the waist down.
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 131
Appendix B
We shall now present you with four real situations. We shall describe the situation
and ask you to say what you think those involved in each situation should do. When
you have given your answers, we shall ask you to write down the reasons (minimum
of 1, maximum of 10) on which you based your decision.
Situation 1: Overgrazing a Common
A piece of common grazing land is shared by 10 herdsmen. All the herdsmen know
that the common land is the perfect size for the total quantity of sheep they possess.
Although the herdsmen are all in the same business, they scarcely share a social life,
and it cannot be said that they are friends. Even so, they have an unwritten agreement
to avoid overgrazing of the common land. This agreement was reached on consider-
ing that overgrazing could have two types of adverse effect. One type would involve
the reduction of vegetation cover, infertility of the land, soil erosion, and contamina-
tion of nearby rivers; the other type of adverse effect would be economic, in that if all
the herdsmen were to buy extra sheep, they would ruin each other’s business.
Nevertheless, one of the herdsmen, José, finds a special offer that would enable him
to buy several more sheep at a very good price.
Situation 2: Logging Old Growth Stands
Not long ago, an extensive area of old forest in a small region of the Pyrenees was
provisionally designated as a national park. However, the local logging company,
which has owned the forest for years, wants to exploit its timber potential. The
region in which the forest is situated has been going through an economic depres-
sion for a number of years, and this new project would undoubtedly lead to the gen-
eration of jobs and an inflow of money for many years to come. María has lived all
her life in this area. Both she and her husband are unemployed, and they know that
they would be taken on by the logging company as soon as the new project began.
The majority of the inhabitants of the village are really excited about the logging
project and want it to go ahead. Moreover, in the village it is felt that nobody gave
the locals a thought when they were going through the economic crisis. However,
María knows that 98% of the oldest forests on the Iberian Peninsula have already
been exploited for the production of furniture and paper and that this ecosystem of
forests constitutes the habitat of many species in danger of extinction that cannot
survive in other environments. Also, María has just found out that the jobs created
by the logging company would last only until all the trees are cut down, just a few
years, and afterward they would all be unemployed again.
(continued)
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132 Environment and Behavior
Appendix B (continued)
Situation 3: Cutting Firewood in a Protected Forest
In a rural area, a national forest park has been created as part of a project aimed at
recovering a wooded area that is being affected by the traditional practices of the local
inhabitants. Specifically, these local people have been cutting wood for generations to
cover basic domestic needs such as cooking and heating. In the area most strongly
affected by these practices, there has been severe erosion, such that newly planted trees
cannot take root. This has led to a loss of biodiversity as well as a lack of wood for the
local inhabitants. As part of the recovery plan, those managing the forest have created
a designated woodcutting zone. In spite of this, the locals are complaining because to
obtain wood they have to walk some kilometers from their village several times a week,
with a 20-minute climb at the end, to reach the designated woodcutting zone.
According to the locals, this task is becoming harder and harder because they have to
go farther each time to collect enough wood for the daily needs of their families. Like
other villagers, Silvia has the same thought everyday as she walks through the national
park, “My task would be much easier if I could take wood from the protected zone near
my house. However, Silvia knows that it is illegal to take wood from the park area and
those caught doing so are severely punished. On the other hand, she also knows that
the possibility of her being seen is very little.
Situation 4. Building a New Landfill
A region in the province of Soria (central-northern Spain) includes an area of beautiful
national park with a rich ecosystem of indigenous flora and fauna; moreover, it is a
highly popular place for the pursuit of leisure activities. However, there is also a grow-
ing problem in the area concerning what to do with the rubbish from the local popula-
tion. The landfill site reached its capacity six months ago. The local environmental
health authority has developed two proposals for dealing with this situation. The first
would involve no financial costs whatsoever and would consist in the creation of a sec-
ond landfill project on a site within the national park. If the landfill site is created there,
it will affect the complex ecosystem of this natural area. Moreover, situating it there
would drastically reduce the value of the numerous houses close by, which would be
financially disastrous for their owners. The second proposal involves the creation of a
new waste collection system that would oblige all users to separate their rubbish into
seven categories, six for recycling paper, glass, plastic, metal and aluminum, medi-
cines, and batteries, and another for organic waste. Apart from the task of the sorting
itself, the main drawback would be that, as is already the case in some other regions
(such as La Rioja), those who do not sort out their rubbish in this way would incur high
fines. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the entire region would have to pay a monthly
charge to cover the additional cost of this system of waste collection. Marta and Luis,
two residents of the area, are going to take part in a public vote on the matter next week.
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Berenguer / Empathy and Environment 133
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Jaime Berenguer is a senior lecturer in environmental and social psychology at the
Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He holds a PhD in environmental psychology. His research
interests include the study of environmental attitudes and behavior, emotion and environment,
and environmental management of cities.
134 Environment and Behavior
at Univ Autonoma de Madrid on December 10, 2009 http://eab.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... As a long history of participatory and co-creation approaches in AR4D has also shown (see e.g. Neef and Neubert, 2011;Schut et al., 2018;Van de Gevel et al., 2020), a lack of empathy with stakeholders or what also have been called the 'problem, knowledge, and solution holders' will likely lead to innovations that are mistargeted or result in inaction (Berenguer, 2007;Jackson and Payne, 2020;Jagers et al., 2020), making empathy a key ingredient for sustainability and transitions towards transformed food systems (Berenguer, 2007;El Bilali, 2020;Francesca et al., 2021). ...
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