Attitudes and sustainable household consumption
Dr. Erling Holden
Western Norway Research Institute, P.O.Box 163, 6851 Sogndal, Norway.
Phone: +47 57676150, Fax: +47 57676190, E-mail: email@example.com
Paper to be presented at the ENHR Conference, Reykjavik 29 June-3 July 2005
Working Group: Sustainability in Housing and Urban Environments
This article focuses on when and how green attitudes direct sustainable household
consumption. In a household survey, 941 residents in Greater-Oslo reported their
individual and their household’s consumption of energy and transport, as well as family
structure, income and housing facilities. The analyses show that six conditions improve
attitude-behaviour consistency. First, there must be correspondence between the
specification of an attitude and the consumption in question. Second, although positive
attitudes towards environmental issues are good predictors for everyday sustainable
consumption, green individuals seem to cast aside their environmental concerns when
travelling for leisure. Third, membership in an environmental organisation does not by
itself guide sustainable household consumption. Thus, an expressed attitude is better
than membership in an environmental organisation as guide for sustainable household
consumption. Fourth, unsustainable household consumption is largely determined by
habits rather than attitudinal variables. Direct and indirect approaches can be used to
reinforce attitude, and thereby guide consumption. Fifth, strong attitudes formed under
direct experience and easily accessible when a decision is made, improve attitude-
behaviour consistency. Sixth, it is important to acknowledge the key role of facilitation.
Positive attitudes towards sustainable household consumption practices are of little use
if such practices are difficult to carry out.
“One of the least comfortable themes [of sustainable development] is sustainable
consumption. Taken seriously, it is likely to require major changes in the lifestyles of those
living in most developed countries – something that none of us finds easy.”1
In Agenda 21 – the action plan from the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 – sustainable
consumption was presented as a major challenge for achieving sustainable development:
“the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the
unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized
countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalance”
(Agenda 21, chapter 4.3). Agenda 21 addresses both consumption and production,
which are closely linked. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the one without the other.
This article focuses on consumption.2
What is sustainable consumption? The term “sustainable consumption” is defined along
the lines of the WCED’s definition for sustainable development as: “the use of goods
and services that responds to basic needs and brings a better quality of life, while
minimising the use of natural resources and toxic materials, and emissions of waste and
pollutants over the life-cycle, so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations
(Norwegian Ministry of Environment, 1994).” This definition puts forward two
important dimensions of sustainability: the social dimension (e.g. equity and
distributional considerations) and the environmental dimension (e.g. natural resources,
pollutants, and waste). In this article, the term “sustainable consumption” refers
primarily to environmentally sustainable consumption.
There are three main strategies for achieving sustainable consumption: efficiency,
substitution and reduction (Holden, 2001). The first strategy stresses that developing
new and more efficient technology is a prerequisite for sustainable consumption. The
second strategy advocates changes in consumption patterns in order to reach the goal of
sustainable consumption. The third strategy stresses that it is necessary to reverse the
high and increasing level of consumption.
Agenda 21 urges that values and attitudes that support sustainable consumption must be
reinforced: “Governments and private-sector organizations should promote more
positive attitudes towards sustainable consumption through education, public awareness
programmes and other means” (chapter 4.26). Whichever of the three strategies that is
preferred, it is unthinkable to proceed without some kind of willing participation of the
consumers. New, more efficient technology must be purchased, a shift towards more
sustainable consumption patterns must be freely chosen, and reductions in consumption
volume must be voluntary. Thus, in this article it is hypothesized that high
environmental awareness and positive attitudes towards sustainable development are
necessary conditions for achieving sustainable consumption in the industrialized
Nevertheless, when promoting sustainable consumption strategies it is important to
acknowledge more conditions in addition to attitudes and awareness. Such conditions
include economic incentives (i.e. taxes and subsidies), regulations (i.e. laws and
standards), and physical infrastructures (i.e. public transport systems and urban form).
These are all conditions that either constrain or enable behaviour, and subsequently
consumption. However, conditions must be based on policies that are supported by the
majority of consumers. Thus, consumers are called upon not only to promote
sustainable consumption through their daily behaviour, but also –as voters – to actively
support necessary changes in national policy (Thøgersen, 1999). Furthermore, even in
cases where regulatory measures have been implemented, there is almost always some
degree of freedom left to the individual consumer. Therefore, achieving sustainable
consumption ultimately depends on choices taken by individual consumers (ibid.).
According to the OECD, changing unsustainable household consumption patterns is
crucial to achieving the goal of sustainable development in OECD countries (OECD,
2002). Analysis shows that environmental impacts from household activities have
worsened over the last three decades, and are expected to worsen further over the next
twenty years (ibid). Thus, “household consumption” is a key concept in this context. A
number of studies point to three distinct consumption categories as the major problem
areas: housing, transport and food (Hille, 1995; Holden, 2001; Lorek and Spangenberg,
2001; Aall and Norland, 2002). These three categories account for as much as 80% of
the direct and indirect environmental impacts caused by households.3Therefore, any
discussion about sustainable consumption must address these consumption categories.
This article focuses on energy use for heating and operating houses, and for transport.
Transport is split into two categories: everyday travel (by all means of transport) and
long-distance leisure-time travel (by car and plane). Thus, four energy consumption
categories are studied: (i) energy use for heating and operating a house, (ii) everyday
travel, (iii) long-distance leisure-time travel by car, and (iv) long-distance leisure-time
travel by plane. Throughout the article, these four energy consumption categories are
referred to as “household consumption.”
Thus, the main purpose of this article is to impart empirical knowledge regarding how
individual attitudes towards environmental issues direct household consumption. This
knowledge is vital for assessing the relationship between environmental attitudes and
sustainable consumption. The empirical data in this article is based on a survey of 941
households in Greater-Oslo (Holden and Norland, 2004).
The following issues are discussed:
Is there a connection between attitudes and household consumption? That is, do
attitudes direct household consumption?
When is there a connection between attitudes and household consumption? That is,
under what conditions do attitudes direct household consumption?
How can attitudes direct changes in household consumption practices? That is,
which processes lead to attitude-consumption consistency?
Some 70 years ago Allport (1935) wrote, “the concept of attitude is probably the most
distinctive and indispensable concept in contemporary American social psychology. No
other term appears more frequently in the experimental and theoretical literature”
(p.798).4McGuire (1985) noted that since the 1920s, interest in attitudes has always
been substantial, although it has waxed and waned. According to McGuire (1986),
however, few will today dispute that attitudes have been a constant, and sometimes
paramount, topic of social psychological and consumer research.
The study of attitudes has gained its status in social psychological research and
theorizing for several reasons. First, attitudes are thought to serve certain psychological
functions for the persons holding them (Pieters, 1988). Thus, one of the main functions
served by attitudes is that of organizing and structuring a rather chaotic world. Second,
and most important for the purpose of this article, attitudes are thought to direct and
thus to explain and predict behaviour (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975).
At least two research lines can be distinguished in the study of attitudes (Pieters, 1988).
First, much attention has been focussed on the question of attitude-behaviour
consistency. If attitudes do not direct, or at least precede behaviour, then one of the
elements of the utility of the attitude concept would be absent. Second, behaviour
change via attitude change has been and still is a prominent research line. Both these
research lines will be addressed here. The main focus will, however, be on the question
of attitude-behaviour consistency.
After Allport’s adherence to the attitude concept, a large number of empirical studies
made it clear that orally expressed attitudes do not usually correlate highly with overt
behaviour (Ronis et al., 1989). In one of the classics on the absence of consistency
between attitudes and behaviour, LaPiere (1934) investigated whether the behaviour of
US hotel and restaurant owners was consistent with their self-reported attitudes towards
discrimination against ethnic groups. LaPiere’s results showed that attitude-behaviour
relationships were inconsistent, and furthermore he expressed doubt as to whether
attitude is actually related to behaviour. In a review of 46 studies on attitude-behaviour
consistency, Wicker (1969) reported that the typical attitude-behaviour correlation was
about 0.2 and that rarely could as much as 10% of the variance in overt behavioural
measurements be accounted for by attitudinal data. Thus, he concluded that attitude
research is of no use in understanding behaviour. Furthermore, he noted that one of the
roads future research could follow was “to abandon the attitude concept in favour of
directly studying overt behaviour” (p.75).
The problem of attitude-behaviour inconsistency has also been analysed in studies of
environmentally responsible consumption (Thøgersen, 1999). Thøgersen suggests that
inconsistencies between expressed attitudes and actual behaviour have a number of
negative consequences. First, they reduce the usefulness of attitude research in the
environmental field. Why bother to study attitudes if they have no effect? Second, and
more seriously, they reduce the producer’s faith in the economic defensibility of
developing environmentally friendlier products and services. Why bother to spend
money to produce environmentally friendly products if nobody buys them? Finally,
inconsistencies between expressed attitudes and actual behaviour reduce the
effectiveness of political interventions. Why should government bother to issue public
information or launch awareness campaigns if there is no possibility to predict the
consequences of these interventions?
However, research on attitude-behaviour consistency has made progress since LaPiere’s
study and Wicker’s review. According to Pieters (1988), LaPiere’s study is an example
of what can be called the first generation of research questions on attitude-behaviour
consistency, the “is” questions. The second generation of research questions deals with
the conditions under which attitude-behaviour consistency can be observed. Such
questions can be called the “when” questions. Fazio and Zanna (1981) stress the
importance of such questions, recommending that rather than asking whether attitudes
relate to behaviour, one should ask “under what conditions do what kinds of attitudes of
what kinds of individuals predict what kinds of behaviour (p.165)?” The third
generation of research questions deals with the variables and processes that moderate
the relationship between attitude and behaviour. These questions can be called the
Taking into account the increased focus on the “when” and “how” questions, Pieters
(1988) concluded that the study of the relationship between attitude and behaviour
relations is vibrant. He suggested that optimism in establishing attitude-behaviour
consistency has grown and that many studies have shown that attitudes can and do
predict behaviour. Furthermore, he argued that attitude theory is slowly but steadily
progressing from the second generation (“when”) to the third generation (“how”)
In this article, the relationship between attitudes and behaviour is discussed in some
detail. What exactly is an attitude? What characterises behaviour? Theorists have been
generous in providing us with definitions and conceptualisations of attitudes. Reviewing
the literature on attitudes and opinions, Fishbein and Ajzen (1972) compiled 500
different operational definitions of what an attitude is. They noted that in some studies
even several definitions were used. According to Ronis et al. (1989), the term “attitude”
is defined in one of two ways. Either attitude is defined as a predisposition to behave in
a certain way, or the relevant behaviour is defined as one component of the attitude
itself. The latter way suggests that an attitude consists of several components. In the
tripartite model, a model that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s, attitudes were
assumed to consist of three parts: cognitive (knowledge), affective (feeling) and
conative (disposition, behaviour). Despite the tripartite model’s popularity in textbooks
and reviews of attitude literature, the bulk of attitude research and theory focused on the
affective component of attitudes (Ostrom, 1969). Present-day research also focuses on
the affective component (Pieters, 1988).
Pieters (1988) presents two criticisms of the tripartite model. First, there is little
evidence that cognitions directly determine behaviour. Second, behaviour (the conative
part) cannot be a part of the definition of an attitude, because the relationship between
attitude (the affective part) and behaviour is precisely what must be empirically proven.
Thus, the term “attitude” will be used here, in keeping with the definition used by most
theorists, to refer to a positive or negative feeling towards a specific behaviour. Possible
antecedents, consequences and correlates of an attitude are excluded from this
Not much will be said here about the conceptualisation and definition of behaviour.
However, one important point will be made that has implications for promoting
sustainable consumption. Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) explain that when studying
behaviour, four specification-elements can be distinguished: (i) the action, (ii) the target
at which the action is directed, (iii) the context in which the action is performed, and
(iv) the time at which the action is performed. On the basis of these elements, Pieters
(1988) recognises two types of behaviour: single acts and behaviour within categories.
A single act is a specific behaviour where all four specification-elements are present. A
behaviour category is a set of single acts that are similar in at least one specification
element, usually the target. Buying a water saving showerhead is a single act. This
single act can be an element of the behaviour category “energy saving,” to which other
single acts belong, such as turning off lights when leaving a room. In this behaviour
category, all single acts are aimed at the same target: energy saving.
This article focuses on sustainable household consumption, which must be considered
as a broad behaviour category. The four energy consumption categories can be looked
upon as behavioural sub-categories, each covering a large number of possible single
The sampling of respondents was limited to eight residential areas within the Greater-
Oslo region. In contrast to analyses based on surveys of entire cities and whole
metropolitan regions, this approach allows for better control of key contextual factors,
such as local density, access to public transport, and socio-demographic characteristics.
This approach also enables a more detailed discussion of the possible effects of attitudes
on household consumption when different contexts are considered. The eight areas
cover both areas that consist of single-family houses on the urban fringe and areas that
are characterised by multifamily housing in the city centre.
Questionnaires were sent during March and April 2003, to 2,500 randomly selected
individuals above the age of 17. An average of 120 respondents per area answered the
questionnaires, a response rate of 40 percent. The questions concerned the individual’s
and the household’s consumption of energy and transport, as well as family structure,
income and housing facilities.
Both bivariate correlation analyses and multiple regression analyses were applied.
However, bivariate correlation analysis yields a number which gives an immediate
picture of how closely two variables correlate. Even though a correlation might
establish that two variables actually move together, no claim can be made that this
necessarily indicates cause and effect (Wonnacott and Wonnacott, 1990). Furthermore,
the correlation might be spurious. To establish whether there is a cause-and-effect
relationship between variables, the effects of confounding variables (i.e. other
determinants) must be allowed for. This is done by multiple regression analyses.
Thus, in this study, the bivariate correlation analyses deal with the “is” questions, while
multiple regression analyses deal with the “when” questions. When dealing with the
“how” questions, a synthesis of the empirical analyses and other knowledge on this field
Household consumption: Household consumption includes consumption of energy for
housing, everyday travel and long-distance leisure-time travel by plane and car. All data
are taken from the questionnaire.
Environmental demands: All household consumption data are converted into
appropriate units of measure and stated as yearly energy use per household member.
Energy use correlates with a large number of different environmental issues (e.g.
emissions of greenhouse gases, substances that cause health problems and damage to
buildings, and emissions that cause acidification), and is therefore a good indicator of
Land use characteristics: Data regarding land use characteristics is divided into two
groups. Data in the first group is related to physical-structural characteristics of the
house, including type of housing6, size, age, and access to a private garden. Data are
taken from the questionnaire. The second group of data is related to physical-structural
characteristics of the residential areas, including location (distance from the house to the
city centre and nearest sub-centre), housing density (number of houses per decare), local
land mix (the percentage of developed area that is used for housing within a residential
area). Data are taken from national and local data sources and maps.
Socio-economic and socio-demographic factors of the household: Variables in this
group include the respondent’s sex, age, education, occupation, and income as well as
the household’s income, car ownership, and access to a private holiday house. Data are
taken from the questionnaire.
Attitudes: Attitudes are measured at different levels, reflecting whether an attitude is
directed towards a higher level of generality (household consumption as a behaviour
category) or whether it is directed towards specific acts within a category (e.g. everyday
travel). At the same time, attitude levels reflect to what extent social and personal norms
are internalised by an individual. Four attitude levels are identified.
At the highest level of generality of attitudes and internalisation of social and personal
norms, membership in Norway’s Environmental Home Guard (NEHG) has been used as
a measurement of attitude. At the second attitude level respondents were asked whether
they were registered members in one or more environmental organisations other than
the NEHG. The third and fourth attitude levels are analysed by way of a Likert Scale.
Using the Likert Scale, attitudes are measured by whether a respondent expresses
agreement or disagreement with statements (scale items) on household consumption.
Throughout this article, respondents who are members of the NEHG or other
environmental organisation are called “green” household members. Also, individuals
with a high score on the index-based attitudes are called “green”, whereas non-members
and individuals with a low score on the index-based attitudes are called “ordinary”
Figure 1 shows how household consumption varies between green and ordinary
FIGURE 1. Household consumption of members versus non-members of NEHG, and members
versus non-members of all environmental organisations. All numbers in the figure are given as
kWh/year/household member. N = 445.
Among the four groups, the difference in average yearly energy consumption per
household member is not large. For example, the high-energy group consumes only five
percent more energy than does the low-energy group. Members of an environmental
organisation (NEHG or other) have higher energy consumption than non-members. This
is certainly surprising, given the NEHG’s commitment to the goal of “a general
reduction in the level of consumption”.
Figure 1 does not show the measurement of the two index-based attitude levels. Nor
does it show whether the differences indicated in the figure are statistically significant.
Therefore, bivariat correlation analyses have been carried out in order to investigate the
relationship between household consumption and the four attitude levels. The bivariate
analyses will further elaborate on the question: “Is there a relationship between attitudes
(measured at various levels) and household consumption?”
Energy use for leisure travel by car 1841 1750 1845 1681
Energy use for leisure travel by plane 6346 7996 6482 7538
Energy use for everyday travel 4700 4405 4726 4056
Energy use for housing 9413 8967 9280 9915
Non-member Member Non-member Member
NEHG All environmental org.
Three conclusions can be made from the bivariate analyses. First, there are only small
differences between the total household consumption of green individuals and that of
ordinary individuals. To the extent that there are differences, they do not favour the
green individuals. Namely, the results confirm that green individuals use more energy
than ordinary ones. Second, a high score in the measurement of an index-based attitude
is a better indicator than membership in an environmental organisation that one
consumes little energy. Third, although green individuals are more environmentally
responsible in their everyday lives than ordinary ones, they nevertheless cast aside their
environmental concern when travelling for leisure.
However, as already emphasized, the bivariate correlation analyses yield a number that
gives an immediate picture of how closely two variables move together. To further
investigate the relationship between attitudes, other determinants and household
consumption, multiple regressions are needed.
The multiple regression analyses reveal the extent to which the identified correlations
between attitudes and consumption are spurious. Four regressions have been run for
each household consumption category, in order to measure the influence of each of the
four attitude levels. Annual energy use per household member is the dependent variable.
The analyses show that a number of other determinants have significant effect on
household consumption. The significance levels of land-use characteristics, and of
socio-economic and socio-demographic conditions, can be found in Holden (2005).
HOW AND WHEN CAN ATTITUDES GUIDE SUSTAINABLE HOUSEHOLD
When is there a relationship between attitudes and household consumption? How can
attitudes guide changes towards sustainable household practices? Six important points
can be made. First, this study has convincingly demonstrated that correspondence of
attitudes and behaviour increases consistency. Thus, a specific attitude towards a
particular issue (i.e. pollution caused by cars) guides behaviour relevant to that attitude
(i.e. sustainable transport behaviour). On the other hand, when attitude is measured at a
high level of generality, it is not consistent with very specific behaviour. Second,
positive attitudes towards (specific) environmental issues are more likely to be
consistent with behaviour in everyday life than in leisure time. Energy use for both
housing and everyday travel correlates with specific attitudes. This is not the case for
leisure travel. In fact, the correlation between attitudes and leisure travel is very weak
indeed. Third, membership in an environmental organisation does not guide sustainable
household consumption. Further research is needed, however, to get more insight into
the moderating role of membership on attitude-behaviour consistency. Fourth,
individuals must overcome “the force of habit”. Over time, as behaviour becomes
habitual, it is not influenced by attitudes. Direct and indirect strategies can be applied in
order to reinforce attitudes as a guide for sustainable consumption. Fifth, making
attitudes accessible, learning from direct experience and developing strong and
persistent attitudes are important variables to improving attitude-behaviour consistency.
Sixth, and finally, it is important to acknowledge the key role of facilitation. If it is
either difficult or impossible to carry out sustainable household practices, positive
attitudes will not help much.
One important question remains, however. Who should be responsible for promoting
sustainable household consumption? Three actors are involved: government, producers
and consumers. Government and producers have an important role in facilitating
sustainable consumption. Developing sustainable land use characteristics, launching
information campaigns about sustainable practices, and promoting sustainable products
and services are key aspects of facilitation. As Thøgersen (1999) suggests, it might be
more important to reduce barriers that prevent people from behaving in accordance with
their attitudes, than it is to improve peoples’ attitudes.
However, there must be no question about the responsibility of individual consumers.
Even after intensive facilitation by government and producers, there are almost always
some degrees of freedom left for the individual. Thus, the final outcome depends on
individual consumer choice. The importance of attitudes (and volitional constructs like
beliefs, values, and decisions) should therefore not be underestimated.
In fact, some of history’s most sensational events and changes are the result of gradually
changed attitudes (Petty and Krosnick, 1995). Notable transformations in history
include the shift form the overt racist attitudes of the 1950s in the US, and more
recently, access for women to significant leadership roles in society. Collective attitude
change in these instances was a prerequisite for the transformations. To change the
presently unsustainable society requires a similar collective attitude change.
However, a change towards sustainable development in general, and towards
sustainable household consumption in particular, is a highly discomfiting task.
Achieving sustainable development will require considerable effort and suffering.
Surely reform on a global scale is necessary. As Elster (1989) suggests, people will only
be motivated to suffer the costs of the transformation if they perceive the reform to be a
matter of basic justice. However, such a reform cannot simply be planned. It must be
based on the acceptance by each individual of the need for sustainable development and
the related need for lifestyle changes. The only one that can make these changes is the
(1) According to the president of the Royal Society, Sir Aaron Klug (Heap and Kent, 2000 p.iii).
(2) This article focuses on consumption for two reasons. First, environmental problems are being
increasingly attributed to the use of certain products (or services). Thus, it is no longer the
manufacturing of the products that represents the most serious threat, but rather the use of the
products and the products themselves. Second, it is recognized that, under current social conditions
in the developed world, consumption is an important driving force of unsustainable development in
general. Unsustainable consumption levels are primarily the result of mankind’s desire to do more,
experience more, and see more, all of which result in greater consumption.
(3) The environmental impact is measured using the Ecological Footprint as the unit of measure.
(4) Quoted from Pieters (1988).
(5) The term “lifestyle” is suited to the tripartite model
(6) Types of housing include: single-family house, row house and multifamily house.
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