HomeBehaviour changeChange strategies: there is room for status and ethics

Change strategies: there is room for status and ethics

This is a guest post by Nick Gallie author of A different view in response to a debate about whether appeals to money, image and status should be used to encourage greener living. (The two original pieces are here and here)

The claimed dichotomy between status-driven and ethics-driven strategies for change is a false one; in the real world there is room for both.

The argument below looks first at values then at environment then the relationship between the two. The word value is used here in a Schwartzian sense:

  • Values are beliefs. But they are beliefs tied inextricably to emotion, not objective, cold ideas.
  • Values are a motivational construct. They refer to the desirable goals people strive to attain.
  • Values transcend specific actions and situations. They are abstract goals.
  • Values are ordered by importance relative to one another. People’s values form an ordered system of value priorities that characterize them as individuals. (1)

So we are not talking about immutable dispositions. Schwartz shows that values are held hierarchically (we prioritise and prefer some values over others) and that those hierarchies do indeed change over time because of changing life circumstances. Indeed Schwartz says:

Typically, people adapt their values to their life circumstances. They upgrade the importance they attribute to values they can readily attain and downgrade the importance of values whose pursuit is blocked [Schwartz & Bardi, 97].(1)

But the process is slow. For example; Schwartz cites strong correlations in favour of values shifting towards security and conformity, through the natural processes of ageing.

Values and behaviour
At any one time, our behaviour (in general) will tend to reflect our preferred values, but as has been observed elsewhere, (2) the link between values and behaviour is neither immediate nor direct. Life gets in the way. We do not always manage to live up to our values and sometimes we experience the pain of contradiction between our actions and our values. Schwartz also talks of contradictions between dominant and subordinate values arising through the processes of choice.

From this it follows that an invitation to act in a particular way will tend to be read through the prism of dominant values (among other active at the time influences). Its relevance and acceptability to the individual at that moment in her/his life will be judged. Where an invitation to act is addressed to subordinate values, the individual will experience value contradiction in the form of pressure from preferred, dominant values. The probability of that invitation being dismissed is higher, under these circumstances, than if the invitation had been addressed to a dominant value. Schwartz provides empirical evidence for this from studies of voting patterns, and activist participation. (1)

It also follows, that the more closely an invitation to act is aligned to preferred values, the weaker will be the value based resistance to that invitation. (There may be all sorts of other kinds of resistance; values are not the only relevant variable in choice.)  Rose argues: if you want people to act in a particular way, ask them in a way that resonates with their preferred values, or in simple terms, makes sense to them. And if you do, they will, by and large be more likely to respond positively.

Reinforcing values
The issue of contention between Rose and Crompton is value reinforcement. Crompton argues that if a behaviour corresponding to a (dominant) value is rewarded, the dominance of that value will be confirmed, possibly increased. This may have detrimental long-term effects (to a particular agenda) if the dominant value encourages forms of future behaviour that contradict that agenda.

More specifically Crompton is concerned that rewarding wealth seeking or status driven behaviour that results in short term environmental benefits may in the longer term lead to greater environmental detriments because of the negative environmental effects of future wealth or status driven behaviours. Rose on the other hand claims to have evidence that as one status related need is fulfilled through a pro environmental action, the new needs that will take its place will tend to be fulfilled in a way that is consistent with the previous (pro environmental) behaviour. In other words a pro environmental trajectory of status needs fulfilment will gradually become established. And more, that such a direction may lead eventually to a change of heart and a move away from further extrinsic (status driven) value fulfilment actions towards more intrinsic value adoption – a deepening understanding of and commitment to environmental matters.

In this debate, no one is disputing that status driven values based action, if rewarded, will tend to reinforce that value priority, at least for a while. The issue is actually about the direction of future behaviours, will they tend to be beneficial or detrimental to the environmental agenda?

Let me now turn to the matter of environment to try to resolve this question. The pro-environment agenda is not a monolith. In fact there are widely divergent views about what kind of mechanisms are best placed to resolve environmental problems.

How to solve environmental problems: market vs progressive view
Market environmentalists take the view that the market is the most efficient resource allocation mechanism ever to be devised by humankind and that the more the market is allowed to determine the nature and adoption patterns of environmental solutions, the quicker and more efficiently will those solutions come to pass.   On the other hand, progressive environmentalists take the view that left to their own, markets produce profound structural problems that exacerbate environmental problems and hugely affect the global distribution of negative environmental effects, not to speak of other humanitarian issues. To progressives, the resolution of environmental issues then necessarily involves a high degree of structural adjustment, and not of the kind historically associated with the World Bank and the IMF!

Two examples of practical emanations of these divergent views are Cap and Trade, the market driven approach to reducing carbon emissions and the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework that is supported by a coalition of NGOs. The GDR Framework ties notions of climate debt (and therefore carbon reduction obligations) to the development rights of the world’s poorest peoples. These are very different approaches which both aim to respond to the phenomenon of climate change. They do so in very different ways and are based on very different worldviews and value systems.

How does this relate to the Rose, Crompton debate? It relates because it demonstrates that different groups use very different approaches to try to resolve environmental issues. To put things simply, market environmentalists put their faith in the market and believe you can buy and spend your way out of environmental problems, that business will deliver the solutions provided the demand for such solutions is presented to them. Under this model, the role of NGOs is to help foster that demand and encourage market conditions in which green business can thrive. In this approach it follows that there is no necessary contradiction between wealth creating and status driven behaviours (and the maintenance of extrinsic value) and the resolution of environmental issues. For progressives, this, of course, is anathema. The entire mechanism of market driven growth lies behind the environmental fiasco and the (eventual) solution depends very much on its being dismantled and replaced by a new social order predicated on intrinsic value.  Chalk and cheese.

Now this is not to suggest that Rose is a market environmentalist. But it does suggest that in as far as he is talking about market related environmental activity, such as purchasing green energy or electric cars, there is no contradiction between extrinsic value reinforcement and environmental benefit. For Crompton it is different. I quote from the Common Cause handbook:

Various elements of our society and culture help foster the desire for wealth, social recognition and power – and simultaneously diminish care for people and the environment. Addressing these will be essential in making progress. (3)

It is clear that to Crompton, valorising the pursuit of extrinsic value negates care for people and the environment. Rewarding and therefore encouraging such a value set can only lead to further entrenchment of those values and hence further negation of people and the environment. Crompton appears to be arguing the progressive case.

Two further points are worth mentioning. The first is to do with time, the second consistency.

Time frames
Schwartz says that values and life circumstances sit in a reciprocal relationship to one another, but the evolution of the life circumstances to which he attaches particular value sets, is slow. The anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu provides a detailed account of how values and social structures intermingle to create a “world as it is” the taken for granted reality (4) which when acted upon becomes real for us. In traditional societies such a habitus is largely immutable, in modern problematized reflexive societies, it is less so, but none the less, at a value level, considerable inertias are present and the processes of value transformation are, for the most part slow. (Sudden, catastrophic events, notwithstanding.)

NGOs are in the business of affecting change. They need short term results, which are intended to build and contribute to longer term ‘systemic change’. Without short term positive results, it is difficult to imagine how they could sustain campaigns and a supporter base. This drives NGOs to have to deal with the world as it is, as Rose describes it, as well as the aspirational world of tomorrow. To return to Schwartz, if we are to embrace the world as it is, our efforts will be more effective, broadly speaking, if our behaviour requests are couched in terms of the dominant values of our audiences. Value change, however belongs squarely to the longer term. In the short term we may advocate value change but we do that knowing we are playing ‘a long game’. There is no such thing as short term value change (outside of large scale catastrophic events.).

Now to consistency. Rose cites Caldini’s consistency principle (5) to support the view that one pro environmental status driven behaviour is likely to be followed by another, as needs are satisfied and new needs take their place. Caldini cites extensive empirical evidence in support of the principle. Consistency suggests the probability of establishing pro environmental status driven trajectories of change for those operating within a market environmental model. Fundamental principles of marketing support this view. In contemporary western societies most needs are socially manufactured (once basic sustenance needs have been met) and indeed, need generation is a major industry.  Marketeers track past behaviours of customers and market to them in line with their previous behaviours seeking repeat purchase, in-line purchase, cross-selling and up-selling opportunities, as well as brand loyalty building. For example, when first introduced to the UK, premium priced renewable energy was marketed exclusively to population segments known to have track records of pro environment purchases or having taken some form of pro environmental action. (6) The key point is that consistency is heavily reinforced by marketing activity. NGO and charity fundraisers work to similar principles.

But consistency also applies to those following progressive intrinsic value based change trajectories. Once you have begun to act in line with these values you will tend to see the world more clearly from this perspective and continue this line of action for as long as it is rewarded, somehow. Such a trajectory will tend to drive you into opposition to change models based on extrinsic value.

The debate between Rose and Crompton has been muddied by a failure to explicate differentials in environmental change models and operational time frames. I hope that the points made above have helped to clarify the nature of the disagreement.  In the real world, there is room for pro-environmental activity based on both intrinsic and extrinsic values. Both can lead to consistent follow through, but we should be clear that neither are without potential pitfalls. Market based activity has historically driven vast inequities, and there is little evidence to date to show that market environmentalism would do much to close these. On the other hand, progressive environmentalism, by guilt tripping its messaging has served to divide and marginalise its cause.

Schwartz points out that choice entails value conflict. The real art of environmental messaging is in devising strategies that aim to minimize and resolve such conflicts, not to indulge them.

  1. Schwartz, S. 2007. Basic Human Values.
  2. Maio, G. 2011 Don’t mind the gap between values and action.
  4. Bourdieu, P., 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge,: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Caldini, R., 2001. Influence.London, Allyn and Bacon.
  6. KSBR 2004. Unit[e] Market Launch Reseach Report.


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.