Change strategies: the dangers of campaigning on the basis of money, image and status

This is a guest post by Professor Tim Kasser, Chair of the Psychology Department at Knox College, Illinois, and by Dr Tom Crompton, Change Strategist at WWF-UK. It is an edited version of  a Common Cause briefing – Limitations of Environmental Campaigning Based on Values for Money, Image, and Status.

It is part of a pair of articles debating how to promote greener living. You can read a response from Chris Rose, Director of Campaign Strategy Limited, here.

This article challenges the Value Modes approach taken to motivating behaviour change, advocated most prominently by Chris Rose at Campaign Strategy and Pat Dade at Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing Ltd (CDSM).

Undoubtedly, there is much about the approach we advocate (called the Common Cause, or ‘frames and values’ approach) which is in agreement with the Value Modes approach: both approaches draw from a similar body of empirical work, recognize the tensions that exist in people’s value systems, and acknowledge the need to tailor different communications to different audiences.

But there is a critical difference.

The Value Modes approach suggests that problems like climate change can be tackled by identifying image, financial, and status-based reasons for adopting pro-environmental behaviours and then marketing such behaviours using these motivations.

The best example is the work of Global Cool”, Rose has written: “motivating the uber-Prospector ‘Now People’ group to turn down their central heating by following fashion and wearing jumpers, avoiding flying by using Eurostar for hedonistic holidays, incentivizing bus travel with lessons in how to chat up strangers…”

We, on the other hand, have pointed to evidence showing that appeals to values such as image, status, and money are likely to reinforce these self-enhancing, extrinsic values, thereby undermining people’s concern about social and environmental problems. In view of this, we argue, on the whole, against appealing to such values, even if they might successfully motivate particular pro-environmental behaviours.

Undermining values
Our rationale is that if campaigns based on appeals to these values do indeed reinforce them, then there is a danger of decreasing people’s concern with social and environmental issues, as well as their motivation to behave in other pro-social and pro-environmental ways. If such appeals are used at all, this must be with great circumspection.

So far as we know, Rose and Dade agree that prioritizing the values of image, status, and money is associated with lower motivation to engage in environmentally friendly behaviour. There is certainly extensive evidence for this.

But here’s the point of difference. Supporters of the Value Modes approach claim that campaigns and communications that appeal to these values are likely to weaken these values.

For example, Dade has written that: “Common Cause contends that satisfying a need somehow strengthens it. This is contrary to the data that we have captured over the last 40 years from across the world.”

Rather, according to Rose:“…once the underlying dominant unmet need is met, a new one takes its place… So, if Prospectors meet that need by getting enough stuff and following sufficient fashion etc, they do not stay Prospectors but develop other needs – i.e., they become Pioneers”

The Value Modes position on this issue is contrary to our understanding of the empirical and theoretical literature and we have yet to see any convincing evidence to support it. We therefore decided to explore what psychologists with expertise in values, motivation, needs, and ecological sustainability thought about this issue.

Survey of psychologists
To this end, we conducted a small survey of several psychologists, presenting two scenarios. These scenarios envisaged people:

a) being encouraged to pursue aims of status, image, money, and achievement; and,

b) purchasing products which successfully conveyed status, image, money, and achievement.

We asked the psychologists to judge whether such circumstances would leave individuals more likely to continue to attach importance to these aims or whether people would come to reject these aims.

Details of the questions that we asked, and the psychologists’ full responses, can be found in a Common Cause Briefing, published at www.valuesandframes.org.

In brief, we found that all of the psychologists who responded agreed that people who are exposed to messages that propound the importance of money, image and status are likely to continue to prioritise such values. They agreed that this effect would still hold even if those individuals purchased products and services that successfully expressed those values.

In this, admittedly limited survey, we did not find any psychologist who supported the Value Modes claim that selling people products and behaviours on the basis of appeals to money, image and status would eventually help them to “graduate” to more pro-social and pro-environmental values and behaviours.

Instead, in line with the empirical and theoretical literature, these psychologists agreed that such appeals are likely to maintain people’s focus on the very values known to be associated with worse environmental (and social) behaviours.

We are confident that the proponents of Value Modes agree with us that humans cannot afford to waste time on strategies which fail to meet, in a proportional and systemic way, the serious environmental and social problems that the world faces.

As such, we believe that now is the time for those who support the Value Modes perspective to highlight any theoretical statements that psychologists have made which support their viewpoint, and to present empirical research that substantiates their position and that can be reviewed by those interested in this debate.

Read Chris Rose’s response

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