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Abstract

Recent research suggests that engagement in environmentally-friendly behavior can feel good. Current explanations for such a link do not focus on the nature of environmentally-friendly behavior itself, but rather propose well-being is more or less a side-benefit; behaviors that benefit environmental quality (e.g., spending one's money on people rather than products) also tend to make us feel good. We propose that the moral nature of environmentally-friendly behavior itself may elicit positive emotions as well, because engaging in this behavior can signal one is an environmentally-friendly and thus a good person. Our results show that engagement in environmentally-friendly behavior can indeed affect how people see themselves: participants saw themselves as being more environmentally-friendly when they engaged in more environmentally-friendly behavior (Study 1). Furthermore, environmentally-friendly behavior resulted in a more positive self-image, more strongly when it was voluntarily engaged in, compared to when it was driven by situational constraints (Study 2). In turn, the more environmentally-friendly (Study 1) and positive (Study 2) people saw themselves, the better they felt about acting environmentally-friendly. Together, these results suggest that the specific self-signal that ensues from engaging in environmentally-friendly behavior can explain why environmentally-friendly actions may elicit a good feeling.
ORIGINAL RESEARCH
published: 24 November 2016
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01846
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 1November 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 1846
Edited by:
Cecilia Jakobsson Bergstad,
University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Reviewed by:
Niamh Murtagh,
University College London, UK
André Hansla,
University of Gothenburg, Sweden
*Correspondence:
Leonie A. Venhoeven
l.a.venhoeven@gmail.com
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Environmental Psychology,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 28 April 2016
Accepted: 07 November 2016
Published: 24 November 2016
Citation:
Venhoeven LA, Bolderdijk JW and
Steg L (2016) Why Acting
Environmentally-Friendly Feels Good:
Exploring the Role of Self-Image.
Front. Psychol. 7:1846.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01846
Why Acting Environmentally-Friendly
Feels Good: Exploring the Role of
Self-Image
Leonie A. Venhoeven1*, Jan Willem Bolderdijk 2and Linda Steg 1
1Department of Psychology, University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands, 2Department of Marketing, University of
Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands
Recent research suggests that engagement in environmentally-friendly behavior can
feel good. Current explanations for such a link do not focus on the nature of
environmentally-friendly behavior itself, but rather propose well-being is more or less a
side-benefit; behaviors that benefit environmental quality (e.g., spending one’s money
on people rather than products) also tend to make us feel good. We propose that the
moral nature of environmentally-friendly behavior itself may elicit positive emotions as
well, because engaging in this behavior can signal one is an environmentally-friendly
and thus a good person. Our results show that engagement in environmentally-friendly
behavior can indeed affect how people see themselves: participants saw themselves as
being more environmentally-friendly when they engaged in more environmentally-friendly
behavior (Study 1). Furthermore, environmentally-friendly behavior resulted in a more
positive self-image, more strongly when it was voluntarily engaged in, compared to when
it was driven by situational constraints (Study 2). In turn, the more environmentally-friendly
(Study 1) and positive (Study 2) people saw themselves, the better they felt about acting
environmentally-friendly. Together, these results suggest that the specific self-signal
that ensues from engaging in environmentally-friendly behavior can explain why
environmentally-friendly actions may elicit a good feeling.
Keywords: environmentally friendly behavior, pro-environmental behavior, self-image, positive emotions, well-
being, autonomy
INTRODUCTION
Increasing environmental quality is an important goal for many governments around the world. As
for instance agreed upon during the Paris climate conference (COP21), it is an international aim to
keep global temperature rises well below 2C above pre-industrial levels (European Commission,
December 23, 2015). At the same time, an increasing number of governments see citizens’ well-
being as an important indicator of a country’s welfare. As a result, well-being research is more
frequently used as a guide to develop policies that enable people to live better lives (Helliwell et al.,
2012).
Yet, striving toward a better environmental quality and higher human well-being are sometimes
seen as separate, possibly even conflicting goals, as acting environmentally-friendly often involves
some degree of effort and discomfort (De Young, 1990-1991; Lorenzoni et al., 2007). In the
current studies, we wonder whether reaching environmental quality and human well-being are
necessarily at odds. Opposite to the negative view of environmentally-friendly behavior, research
shows that people who act environmentally-friendly experience more happiness and higher life
Venhoeven et al. Why Acting Environmentally-Friendly Feels Good
satisfaction (Kasser and Sheldon, 2002; Brown and Kasser,
2005; Xiao and Li, 2011). The reason why such a positive
relationship between environmentally-friendly behavior and
well-being may exist, however, remains unclear (Venhoeven
et al., 2013). To answer this question, we will examine why
engaging in environmentally-friendly behavior may actually
contribute to individual well-being. We do so by examining
the impact of environmentally-friendly actions on one common
operationalization of well-being—positive emotions.
Explanations given for a link between this type of behavior and
feeling good often do not focus on the nature of environmentally-
friendly behavior itself, but rather propose well-being is more or
less a side-benefit; behaviors that benefit environmental quality
also happen to make us feel good. Some suggest that the things
that actually make people happy, like social relationships and
personal growth, can be achieved in sustainable ways. They are
often contrasted to (over)consumption and materialism, which
are linked to unsustainable behavior and are found to have
a less strong positive or even a negative effect on happiness.
By focusing on those things that actually make them happy,
instead of focusing on consumption and materialism, people
can thus live more sustainably, and feel better at the same time
(Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Jackson, 2005; Beavan, 2009; Kasser,
2009). Others propose that specific personal traits such as being
mindful both make people act environmentally-friendly and
increase a good feeling (Brown and Kasser, 2005). We wonder
whether a link between environmentally-friendly behavior and
positive emotions are indeed mainly a side-benefit. Could the
nature of environmentally-friendly behavior itself not make
people feel good as well?
In the current studies, we focus on the role one’s self-
image may play in explaining the relationship between
environmentally-friendly behavior and positive emotions. More
specifically, we suggest acting environmentally-friendly itself may
feel good because this behavior can signal something positive
about who you are.
Because of the positive consequences environmentally-
friendly behavior has for nature and other people now and in the
future, acting this way can be seen as moral behavior (Leopold,
1949; Heberlein, 1972; Thøgersen, 1996). As research shows,
many people agree that nature has intrinsic value, and humans
have moral duties and obligations to animals, plants, and non-
living nature (Leiserowitz et al., 2005), and a moral responsibility
to address climate change (Lorenzoni et al., 2007). The choice
of engaging in environmentally-friendly behavior is thus based,
amongst others, on wanting to do the moral thing (Schwartz,
1977; Schwartz and Howard, 1981; Lindenberg and Steg, 2007).
One of the pillars on which people base their self-image,
is their own actions (Bem, 1967, 1972). As Bem (1972)
proposes “Individuals come to “know” their own attitudes,
emotions, and other internal states partially by inferring them
from observations of their own overt behavior and/or the
circumstances in which this behavior occurs” (p. 2). How moral
people perceive their behavior to be may thereby affect one’s
moral self-image, a central part of the more overall positive self-
concept (Aquino and Reed, 2002; Dunning, 2007; Sachdeva et al.,
2009). When they engage in morally good behavior, people see
themselves as a moral person and conclude they must be a good
person as well.
Research shows that engagement in environmentally-friendly
behavior can indeed influence how people see themselves. Acting
environmentally-friendly can lead to a more environmentally-
friendly self-identity (Cornelissen et al., 2008; Van der Werff
et al., 2014b) in that when people behave environmentally-
friendly, they tend to see themselves more strongly as
environmentally-friendly persons. If environmentally-friendly
behavior is perceived to be a manifestation of morality, as we
reason above, engagement in this behavior may furthermore
elicit an overall positive self-image. Indeed, environmentally-
friendly behavior has led people to see themselves in a
more general positive light as well (Taufik et al., 2015).
Additionally, how positively people think of themselves is an
important determinant of how good they feel (Taylor and
Brown, 1988; Baumeister, 1993). If perceiving one’s actions to
be environmentally-friendly leads to a positive self-image, this
self-image may thus in turn elicit positive emotions.
As the quote by Bem (1972) above already illustrates, the
circumstances in which behavior occurs can affect how the
behavior itself is interpreted. In the current studies, we look
specifically at the role of volition in this process. An important
stance in theoretical considerations about morality is that
“decisions are classified as moral only when the person who
makes them is perceived to be the responsible agent, that is,
to have chosen the action knowingly and willingly when he
could have done otherwise” (p. 81, Heberlein, 1972). Following
this reasoning, the same environmentally-friendly action will
particularly be interpreted as a morally good behavior when
the person actively chose (rather than was forced to) pursue
it. Furthermore, when people voluntarily choose to engage in
certain behavior, they are more likely to attribute the choice for
engagement to internal instead of external causes (Ryan and Deci,
2000a,b; Van der Werff et al., 2014b). In sum, making the choice
to engage in certain behavior rather than acting out of situational
constraints may particularly reveal something about who you
are—not only to others, but also to yourself (Bodner and Prelec,
2003). Following this reasoning, we wonder whether everyone
who acts in an environmentally-friendly way will feel good
about their engagement. If the self-signal this behavior sends
is an important reason why acting environmentally-friendly
feels good, especially people who behave this way out of their
own volition, rather than out of situational constraints, should
experience positive emotions about their behavior.
THE CURRENT STUDIES
In the current studies, we aim to test whether acting
environmentally-friendly feels good because this behavior signals
something positive about who you are, and whether this effect is
stronger when the choice for the behavior is made voluntarily.
We expect that acting environmentally-friendly feels good
because it positively affects people’s self-image. Following our
reasoning above, we included two indicators of self-image:
environmental self-identity and general positive self-image. More
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 2November 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 1846
Venhoeven et al. Why Acting Environmentally-Friendly Feels Good
specifically, we expect people will see themselves as more
environmentally-friendly (Study 1) and experience a boost in
their more general positive self-image (Study 2) when they
perceive their behavior to be more environmentally-friendly. We
expect these effects to be more pronounced when engagement
in this behavior is voluntary. In turn, we expect that the more
environmentally-friendly and the more positive people’s self-
image is, respectively, the better they will feel about engaging in
this behavior. Following this reasoning, we expect that people will
feel better about more environmentally-friendly and voluntarily
chosen behavior, and that this relationship is mediated by people’s
self-image.
STUDY 1
Method
We approached participants in a Dutch supermarket right after
they paid for their groceries, asking them whether they had time
to complete a short survey about the products they just bought.
No incentives were provided for completion. In total, 178 people
(80 female, 90 male, 8 unknown; Mage =31.6 years, SDage =14.8;
54.7% of the sample had a monthly income of e500–e1000 or
less; 76.4% of the sample had at least higher vocational education)
agreed to complete the questionnaire that took approximately 10
min to fill out. In total 18 participants were excluded from the
analyses because they had missing variables on at least one of
the variables included in the analyses. The Ethical Committee
Psychology of the University of Groningen approved Study 1
(approval number ppo-013-260). Informed consent was obtained
from all participants.
How environmentally-friendly participants perceived their
purchase to be, our independent variable, was operationalized
in two ways. First, participants indicated whether they just
bought any environmentally-friendly products (yes/no). The
label “environmentally-friendly” was not defined, to allow
participants to include any products they personally deemed
environmentally-friendly. Although, this may mean they
included products that are not actually environmentally-
friendly in their count, we assume that it is people’s
perception of environmentally-friendliness, and not the actual
environmentally-friendliness of the products, that drives the
effects we hypothesize. In total, 47 out of the 178 participants
indicated they bought one or more environmentally-friendly
products; six participants did not answer this question.
Second, participants who indicated they bought one or more
environmentally-friendly products were asked to estimate the
percentage of environmentally-friendly products out of their
total purchase (M=43.78%, SD =27.64).
To examine how people’s purchases were related to their self-
image, participants then answered three statements reflecting
one’s environmental self-identity: “Behaving environmentally-
friendly is an important part of who I am,” “I‘m the type of person
that behaves environmentally-friendly,” and “I see myself as an
environmentally-friendly person” (environmental self-identity;
1=totally disagree, 7 =totally agree;Van der Werff et al., 2013).
Mean scores of the three items were computed (α=0.89, M=
4.23, SD =1.16).
As a filler task, all participants additionally indicated why they
made the purchases they did (“These products are better for the
environment,” “Other people also bought these products,” “These
products are healthy,” “These products are of good quality,” “I
felt morally obliged to buy these products,” and “Other reason,
namely ...”). This list also included three items that were used
to measure our moderator variable: volition of the purchase [“I
wanted to buy these products,” “These products were the only
products left in this category” (R) and “Somebody else asked
me to buy these products” (R); 1 =completely disagree, 7 =
completely agree]. The items that aimed to measure volition were
not strongly interrelated (α=0.20, Mrange =6.34 – 6.49, SDrange
=0.87 – 1.34). We therefore used the separate volition items as
moderators in the analyses.
As our dependent variable, all participants indicated on a
7-point scale (1 =completely disagree to 7 =completely agree)
to what extent purchasing the products they just paid for elicited
each of six emotions: good, proud, cheerful (averaged to represent
positive emotions; α=0.75, M=4.15, SD =1.09), and as filler
items: bad, guilty, and frustrated1. The questionnaire ended with
demographics (age, gender, income, highest education level)2.
Participants were randomly assigned to either first answer
the questions about how environmentally-friendly they perceived
their purchases and themselves to be, respectively, or to first
answer the questions about the emotions their purchases elicited.
The questions about the reasons for purchase were always asked
in-between these two blocks and the demographics were always
asked last. The order of the questions did not affect any of our
results.
Results
Linear regression analysis shows that consumers who just
bought environmentally-friendly products saw themselves as
being more environmentally-friendly (M=4.84) than consumers
who did not buy environmentally-friendly products [M=3.99;
B=0.86, t(156) =4.46, p<0.001]. Furthermore, within
the group of participants who indicated to have purchased
environmentally-friendly products we found that the larger the
share of environmentally-friendly products people bought, the
more people saw themselves as an environmentally-friendly
person [B=0.01, t(44) =2.24, p<0.05]. The extent to
which the behavior was perceived as a voluntary choice3,
however, was not found to affect the relationships between
environmentally-friendly purchases and environmental self-
identity, neither for purchasing vs. not purchasing environmental
products (Binteraction_yes/no = −0.01, p=0.95) nor for percentage
of purchase (Binteraction_percentage =0.00, p=0.93). These results
suggest that purchasing environmentally-friendly products is
positively related to people’s perception of themselves as
1Negative emotions were not found to be significantly related to any of our
independent variables.
2Participants additionally indicated whether their purchase elicited a “feeling I did
something fun or pleasant” and a “feeling I did something meaningful or valuable”
(1 =completely disagree to 7 =completely agree). Results on these last two
constructs showed the same pattern as the results reported for positive emotions.
3As the results for all three volition items were similar, we only report the results
for the item “I wanted to buy these products” here. We found similar results when
testing a moderated-mediation model using bootstrapping.
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Venhoeven et al. Why Acting Environmentally-Friendly Feels Good
environmentally-friendly, but volition did not significantly affect
this relationship.
Next, we examined the relationship between environmental
self-identity and the emotions elicited by the purchases. As
expected, linear regression showed that people’s environmental
self-identity was related to how people felt about their
purchases. The more they saw themselves as someone who
acts environmentally-friendly, the better people felt about their
purchases [B=0.16, t(156) =2.16, p<0.05]. Multiple linear
regression showed that the relationship between environmental
self-identity and positive emotions remained when controlled
for environmental purchases (yes/no) [B=0.18, t(155) =2.27,
p<0.05], but disappeared when controlled for percentage of
purchase [B=0.07, t(43) =0.45, p=0.66].
Lastly, linear regression analysis did not show a total
effect for environmental purchase: whether people just bought
environmentally-friendly products was not found to be related
to how positive they felt about their purchase [B=0.01, t(156)
=0.05, p=0.96]. However, we did find a total effect for
percentage of purchase: within the group that indicated to have
purchased environmentally-friendly products, a larger share of
environmentally-friendly products was related to feeling better
about one’s purchase [B=0.01, t(44) =2.41, p<0.05].
To test whether the self-signal ensuing from acting
environmentally-friendly can account for the positive emotions
this behavior elicits, we conducted a mediation analysis using
bootstrapping (N=1000; Preacher and Hayes, 2004). Our
analysis showed that the indirect effect of environmentally-
friendly purchase (yes/no) on positive emotions through
environmental self-identity was significant (ab =0.15, 95% CI
[0.03,0.36]; see Table 1). These findings support the notion that
consumers seem to feel better after purchasing environmentally-
friendly products (vs. not buying environmentally-friendly
products) because this behavior is related to a stronger
environmental self-identity (i.e., people more strongly saw
themselves as a person who acts pro-environmentally). No
indirect effect through environmental self-identity was found
for the relationship between percentage of environmentally-
friendly purchase and positive emotions (ab =0.0009, 95% CI
[0.002,0.005]; see Table 1)4.
Discussion Study 1
The results of Study 1 suggest that environmentally-friendly
purchases are positively related to how environmentally-friendly
people see themselves (i.e., their environmental self-identity),
which in turn may account for the positive emotions these
type of purchases elicits. This study only tested part of our
reasoning, that is, we did not explicitly test yet whether
environmentally-friendly behavior also boosts one’s more
overall positive self-image. As we reason in the introduction,
environmentally-friendly behavior can be seen as a form of
moral behavior. Thereby, seeing yourself as someone who acts
environmentally-friendly could be interpreted as something
positive: it would mean that you are someone who does good.
In Study 2, we will test this reasoning further and look whether
4This analysis was performed for the group of participants who indicated to have
purchased one or more environmentally-friendly products (N=47).
environmentally-friendly behavior can additionally boost
people’s more overall positive self-image, in turn eliciting positive
emotions.
Although, Study 1 showed that environmentally-friendly
purchases were related to a stronger environmental self-identity,
and that a stronger environmental self-identity was related to
more positive emotions about the purchase, causality could
not be established because of the correlational design of the
study. It could for instance also be possible that people who
see themselves as being more environmentally-friendly want to
act consistently with their identity, and purchase (a larger share
of) environmentally-friendly products. We will elaborate on this
point in the general discussion.
We hypothesized that behavior may more strongly signal
something positive about you when the choice to engage
in the behavior is made voluntarily, but this reasoning was
not supported in Study 1. It would be premature, however,
to conclude from the findings of Study 1 that volition
does not influence the strength of the self-signal behavior
sends. Since the average score on all volition items was
high, a ceiling effect could explain this null-finding: people
generally perceived their purchases to be their own choice.
Furthermore, as the separate items measuring autonomy turned
out to form an unreliable scale, we needed to rely on
single items in our analyses. To gain more insight into the
possible role of volition, we therefore manipulated rather than
measured the extent to which the behavior is voluntary in
Study 2.
STUDY 2
Method
We approached Dutch participants while they were waiting
for or traveling by train, asking them whether they had time
to complete a short survey. No incentives were provided for
completion. In total, 159 people (85 female, 69 male, 5 unknown;
Mage =31.2 years, SDage =16.2; 56.8% of the sample had a
monthly income of e500–e1000 or less; 66% of the sample
had at least higher vocational education) agreed to complete
the questionnaire that took approximately 5 min to fill out. In
total, eight participants were excluded from the analyses because
they had missing variables on at least one of the variables
included in the analyses. The Ethical Committee Psychology
of the University of Groningen approved Study 2 (approval
number ppo-014-226). Informed consent was obtained from all
participants.
Participants first indicated to what extent each of the following
five statements about engagement in several environmentally-
friendly behaviors were applicable to them (taking a shower
that lasts <10 min, buying organic products, separating waste,
using the bike for short distances and washing clothing on a
low temperature; 1 =not at all applicable to me, 7 =completely
applicable to me). As our independent variable, volition was
manipulated as a between-subjects factor by introducing and
framing these five behaviors as actions they decided to engage
in out of their own volition (e.g., “I sometimes take a shower
that lasts <10 min, even though I have enough time to stay in
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 4November 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 1846
Venhoeven et al. Why Acting Environmentally-Friendly Feels Good
TABLE 1 | Results of models testing the mediating effect of environmental self-identity on the relationship between environmentally-friendly purchase
and positive emotions.
Path A: effect
purchase
self-identity
Path B: effect
self-identity
positive emotions,
controlled for
purchase
Path C: effect
purchase positive
emotions, controlled
for self-identity
Path C’: effect
purchase positive
emotions
Bootstrap results for indirect
effect
B SE t B SE t B SE t B SE t ab SE LL 95 CI UL 95 CI
Yes/No
environmentally-
friendly purchase
0.86*** 0.19 4.46 0.18* 0.08 2.27 –0.14 0.20 –0.72 0.01 0.19 0.05 0.15 0.08 0.03 0.36
Percentage
environmentally-
friendly purchase
0.01* 0.006 2.24 0.07 0.16 0.45 0.01* 0.006 2.12 0.01* 0.006 2.41 0.0009 0.002 –0.002 0.005
ab, difference between the coefficient of (percentage of) environmentally-friendly purchase (X) in the analysis with (Path C) and the analysis without (Path C’) environmental self-identity
(M) as a covariate, LL 95 CI, Lower limit of 95% confidence interval; UL 95 CI, Upper limit of 95% confidence interval, *p<0.05, ***p<0.001(2-tailed).
the shower for as long as I’d like”; volitional), or as behaviors
participants engaged in out of situational constraints (e.g.,
“I sometimes take a shower that lasts <10 min because of
time restraints”; non-volitional). By framing all behaviors as
something people “sometimes” do, we made sure participants
would find the behaviors applicable to themselves (M=4.55,
SD =1.30; no difference in applicability found between volitional
and non-volitional framing).
To examine to what extent the volition framing would affect
the extent to which a positive self-image was elicited, participants
then answered three statements: “The environmentally-friendly
behaviors above ... say something positive about who I am” “...
indicate I’m a good person” “... show I’m someone who does the
right thing” (1 =completely disagree, 7 =completely agree). Mean
score on these items were computed (α=0.85, M=3.81, SD =
1.54).
As our dependent variable, participants then indicated to what
extent the behaviors they just rated elicited each of 12 emotions
on a 5-points scale (“When I engage in the environmentally-
friendly behaviors above, it makes me feel...”; 1 =not at all,
3=moderately, 5 =very strongly): good, satisfied, proud, happy,
cheerful, inspired (averaged to represent positive emotions; α
=0.88, M=2.92, SD =0.90), and as filler items: frustrated,
bad, uncomfortable, guilty, disappointed and unhappy5. The
questionnaire ended with demographics (age, gender, income,
highest education level).
Results
As expected, linear regression analysis shows that participants felt
the environmentally-friendly behaviors reflected more positively
on who they are when these behaviors were voluntarily chosen (M
=4.13) than when these behaviors were not voluntarily chosen
[M=3.42; B=0.70, t(149) =2.89, p<0.01]. Furthermore,
linear regression showed that the more positive the self-image
behavior elicited was, the better people indicated feeling about
acting accordingly [B=0.28, t(149) =6.78, p<0.001], also
when controlled for volition [B=0.30, t(148) =7.10, p<0.001].
5Negative emotions were not found to be significantly related to any of our
independent variables.
However, we did not find a total effect of voluntary (vs. non-
voluntary) environmentally-friendly behavior on how people
indicated feeling about acting accordingly [B= −0.04, t(149) =
0.26, p=0.80].
To test whether voluntary (vs. non-voluntary) engagement
in environmentally-friendly behavior feels good because of the
positive self-signal this behavior sends, we conducted a mediation
analysis using bootstrapping (N=1000; Preacher and Hayes,
2004). Our analysis showed that the indirect effect of voluntary
(vs. non-voluntary) engagement in environmentally-friendly
behavior on positive emotions through the positive self-image
this behavior elicits was significant (ab =0.21, 95% CI [0.07,0.36];
see Table 2). In other words, people seem to indicate feeling
better about voluntary (vs. non-voluntary) environmentally-
friendly behavior because particularly the former brings about a
more positive self-image.
Discussion Study 2
The results of Study 2 suggest that reminding people of
volitional (vs. non-volitional) environmentally-friendly behavior
leads them to see themselves in a more positive light. In
turn, this positive self-image may account for the positive
emotions volitional environmentally-friendly behavior elicits.
A limitation of Study 2 is that we did not include a
manipulation check of volition. Therefore, we do not know
for certain our manipulation indeed changed participants’ sense
of whether the environmentally-friendly behavior they were
reminded of was volitional or not. Yet, the spoken responses
we got from participants during the data collection give
some indication our manipulation may have been successful:
only in the situational constraint condition, participants felt
the need to explain to us that they also engaged in these
behaviors because they wanted to, and not only because
of the situational constraints listed in the questionnaire.
Nonetheless, as this provides only a tentative suggestion of
the effectiveness of our manipulation, future research could
include a manipulation check to be certain it is indeed
volition that leads people to more strongly attribute behavior to
themselves.
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Venhoeven et al. Why Acting Environmentally-Friendly Feels Good
TABLE 2 | Results of model testing the mediating effect of positive self-image on the relationship between perceived environmentally-friendliness and
positive emotions.
Path A: effect
voluntary engagement
self-image
Path B: effect
self-image à positive
emotions, controlled for
voluntary engagement
Path C: effect
voluntary engagement à
positive emotions,
controlled for self-image
Path C’: effect
voluntary engagement à
positive emotions
Bootstrap results for indirect effect
B SE t B SE t B SE t B SE t ab SE LL 95 CI UL 95 CI
0.70** 0.24 2.89 0.30*** 0.04 7.10 –0.25 0.13 1.92 –0.04 0.15 –0.26 0.21 0.08 0.07 0.36
ab, difference between the coefficient of voluntary engagement (X) in the analysis with (Path C) and the analysis without (Path C’) positive self-image (M) as a covariate, LL 95 CI, Lower
limit of 95% confidence interval; UL 95 CI, Upper limit of 95% confidence interval, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001(2-tailed).
GENERAL DISCUSSION
The goal of the current studies was to examine why engaging
in environmentally-friendly behavior may contribute to
individual well-being. More specifically, we examined the
role one’s self-image may play in explaining the relationship
between environmentally-friendly behavior and positive
emotions. We suggested acting environmentally-friendly
itself may feel good because this behavior can signal
something positive about who you are. Our findings suggest
that engagement in environmentally-friendly behavior
indeed is related to how people see themselves: the more
environmentally-friendly their behavior, the more participants
saw themselves as environmentally-friendly (Study 1).
Furthermore, environmentally-friendly behavior was associated
with a more general positive self-image, more strongly so when
people were reminded of behavior they voluntarily engaged
in, and not engaged in out of situational constraints (Study
2). In turn, the more environmentally-friendly (Study 1) and
positively (Study 2) people saw themselves, the better they felt
about acting environmentally-friendly. Together these results
suggest that the positive self-signal that ensues from engaging in
environmentally-friendly behavior may explain why acting this
way can bring about a good feeling.
While we consistently found that how people saw themselves
mediated the relationship between environmentally-friendly
behavior and positive emotions, the evidence for the role of
volition in strengthening this self-signal was mixed. While
volition was not found to influence the relationship between
environmentally-friendly behavior and environmental self-
identity in Study 1, we did find that people saw themselves
in a more general positive light after being reminded of
environmentally-friendly behavior they engaged in voluntarily
(vs. non-voluntarily). As discussed above, the null-findings in
Study 1 may have been caused by a possible ceiling effect and
the specific items used. Further, exploration of the role volition
plays in the self-signal environmentally-friendly behavior sends
and the positive emotions this behavior elicits could therefore
provide fruitful new insights.
We also found mixed effects regarding a direct effect
of environmentally-friendly behavior on positive emotions.
Buying a larger share of environmentally-friendly products
was linked to feeling more positive emotions, while buying
environmentally-friendly products as such (yes/no) was
not (Study 1). Furthermore, voluntary engagement in
environmentally-friendly behavior was not found to make
people feel better than engagement in environmentally-friendly
behavior out of situational constraints (Study 2). When an
indirect but no total effect is found, this may indicate that there
are two opposite processes at work that suppress a total effect
(Zhao et al., 2010). In the current studies that would mean
that, while engagement in (voluntary) environmentally-friendly
behavior may lead to a positive self-image and thereby feel good,
the same engagement may also have negative side effects that
decrease a positive feeling.
Following the reasoning above, future research could
further investigate possible negative side effects that may
reduce the positive feeling elicited by (voluntarily initiated)
environmentally-friendly behavior. Firstly, processes outside of
our theoretical framework may have influenced our results. As
mentioned in the discussion of Study 2, some people in the non-
voluntary condition felt the need to explain to us that they also
voluntarily engage in the behaviors included in the questionnaire.
This may indicate reactance could have played a role in the
responses people gave. People in the non-voluntary condition
may have felt the need to exaggerate the positive emotions elicited
by the behaviors they just rated. This does raise the question,
however, why they did show reactance on the questions regarding
emotions, but not on the questions regarding positive self-image,
where we did find the expected effect of our manipulation.
A theoretically interesting side effect to study would be
that getting involved in environmental action also may involve
becoming aware of the immensity of the problem we are facing.
By getting familiar with the consequences our behavior has for
nature and other people now and in the future, environmentally-
friendly behavior becomes moral and good to engage in. At
the same time, getting familiar with these consequences may
lead people to realize many different actions are needed to
have a substantial positive impact on the environment. This
could have a disheartening effect, and the pursuit of unattainable
goals leads to psychological distress (Emmons, 1986; Brunstein,
1993; Wrosch et al., 2003). Indeed, interviews with people who
engage in environmental action show that they can feel angry
or sad because of the bad state nature is in, the feeling they
are not doing enough, and the idea that not enough people are
doing their bit (Eigner, 2001). Buying environmentally-friendly
products as such may thus make you see yourself as someone
who acts environmentally-friendly, boosting your self-image, and
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 6November 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 1846
Venhoeven et al. Why Acting Environmentally-Friendly Feels Good
therefore feeling good. However, at the same time it may make
you realize much more action is necessary, therefore eliciting a
bad feeling. Studying whether such simultaneous processes occur
could provide fruitful insight in how to motivate people to engage
in pro-environmental actions more often, while keeping them
happy at the same time.
In addition to studying simultaneous processes that may
work in opposite directions, another interesting direction
would be to study simultaneous processes that all explain why
environmentally-friendly behavior may feel good. Although the
current study suggests that the positive self-signal that engaging
in environmentally-friendly behavior sends may explain why
acting this way can bring a good feeling, our findings do not
imply this is the only reason such a positive relationship exist.
An interesting additional explanation worth examining, is the
sense of connectedness that environmentally-friendly behavior
has been found to provide. As previous studies show, people who
feel more connected to nature both act more environmentally-
friendly (Mayer and Frantz, 2004; Nisbet et al., 2009) and feel
better (Mayer et al., 2009; Ryan et al., 2010; Nisbet et al., 2011;
Passmore and Howell, 2014). Whether a sense of connectedness
can explain why environmentally-friendly behavior itself may feel
good, however, is not clear yet.
Additional research on the causal relationship between the
constructs of the current study could provide fruitful new
insights as well. Study 2 suggests that the circumstances
under which behavior occurs can influence the positivity of
the self-image elicited. However, this study does not exclude
that the relationship between behavior and self-image may
also run in the other direction. In fact, it is likely that
causality between environmentally-friendly behavior, self-image,
and positive emotions runs in both directions. Research on
environmentally-friendly behavior shows that previous behavior
can influence the self-image people have, but that this self-image
can also influence the behavior people engage in Van der Werff
et al. (2014a). Furthermore, research on pro-social behavior
shows that this type of behavior can make people feel good,
but that people who feel good also act more pro-socially (Aknin
et al., 2012). An important question to ask, therefore, is how a
positive spiral of environmentally-friendly behavior, self-image
and feeling good can be put in motion, and what the boundaries
of this circular relationship are.
We started this paper by questioning whether
environmentally-friendliness and feeling good are only
linked more or less coincidentally, or whether engagement
in environmentally-friendly behavior may also feel good in itself.
The two studies described in this paper show that engagement in
environmentally-friendly behavior can influence how people see
themselves, which can explain how people feel about engagement
in environmentally-friendly behavior. These results are a first
indication that environmentally-friendly behavior may not
just be a side-effect of doing the things that are known to
contribute to a happy life, but that the behavior itself can also
influence how people feel, through its effect on how they see
themselves.
ETHICS STATEMENT
Ethical Committee Psychology of the University of Groningen.
When approached participants were asked whether they wanted
to participate in a short survey. Before completing the survey
participants signed an informed consent form stating the
duration of the study and explaining they could withdraw at any
time, and that the data would be anonymous.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
LV, JB, and LS designed the studies in this article together. LV
collected and analyzed the data. LV drafted the article and JB and
LS engaged in several rounds of critical revision of the article.
FUNDING
This research was part of a Ph.D. project funded by the European
Commission 7th framework Programme for the project CReating
Innovative Sustainability Pathways (CRISP).
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Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
The reviewer (AH) and the handling Editor declared their shared affiliation,
and the handling Editor states that the process nevertheless met the standards of a
fair and objective review.
Copyright © 2016 Venhoeven, Bolderdijk and Steg. This is an open-access article
distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).
The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the
original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this
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or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.
Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 8November 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 1846
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