Most people think they’re doing more for the environment than everyone else — but that’s not how averages work

People tend to (wrongly) overestimate the greenness of their personal lifestyle.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

A study from the University of Gothenburg found that people are likely to overestimate how environmentally-friendly their own lifestyle is — and that it’s ‘greener’ than that of an average person. The study included over 4,000 participants from Sweden, the United States, England, and India.

Greenier than thou

“The results point out our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, which is in line with previous studies where most people consider themselves to be more honest, more creative, and better drivers than others. This study shows that over-optimism, or the “better-than-average” effect, also applies to environmentally friendly behaviours,” says environmental psychology researcher Magnus Bergquist, the paper’s sole author.

Bergquist asked the participants to what degree sustainability and environmental friendliness shapes their behavior by asking how often they perform specific activities such as buying eco-labeled products, saving household energy, and reducing purchases of plastic bags. She also asked the participants to estimate how their behavior in this area compared to that of the average person.

The majority of respondents rated themselves as more environmentally friendly than others, be them friends or strangers. However, Bergquist says that their responses don’t reflect this view. The participants regularly overestimated their engagement in activities they performed often, the study reports, and this led them to conclude that they perform such activities more often than others.

Bergquist doesn’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. However, he notes that perceiving ourselves as more engaged in environmental efforts than our peers can reduce our motivation to act in a way that benefits the environment in the future. Overall, the study found, this mentality causes people to actually become less environmentally-friendly than the average individual.

One of the ways we can fight back against this faulty perception is to try and foster a more realistic and objective view of our own environmental efforts.

“If you think about it logically, the majority cannot be more environmentally friendly than others,” Bergquist notes.

“One way to change this faulty opinion, is to inform people that others actually behave environmentally friendly, and thereby creating an environmentally friendly norm. Social norms affect us also in this area, we know this from previous studies.”

The main takeaway from this study is that we’re all subjected to our own biases, wittingly or not. It’s not a crime — life, after all, is a deeply subjective experience. But if we don’t strive to be aware of our own biases, they can and will shape our behavior to a large extent.

The paper “Most People Think They Are More Pro-Environmental than Others: A Demonstration of the Better-than-Average Effect in Perceived Pro-Environmental Behavioral Engagement” has been published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

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