Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning


Environmental campaigns often promote energy conservation by appealing to economic (for example, lower electricity bills) rather than biospheric concerns (for example, reduced carbon emissions), assuming that people are primarily motivated by economic self-interest. However, people also care about maintaining a favourable view of themselves (they want to maintain a ‘positive self-concept’), and may prefer to see themselves as ‘green’ rather than ‘greedy’. Consequently, people may find economic appeals less attractive than biospheric appeals. Across two studies, participants indicated feeling better about biospheric (‘Want to protect the environment? Check your car’s tire pressure’) than economic (‘Want to save money? Check your car’s tire pressure’) tyre-check appeals. In a field experiment, we found that an economic tyre-check appeal (‘Do you care about your finances? Get a free tire check’) elicited significantly less compliance than parallel biospheric and neutral appeals. Together, these studies discredit the conventional wisdom that appealing to economic self-interest is the best way to secure behaviour change. At least in some cases, our studies suggest, this strategy is not effective.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1


  1. Crompton, T. & Kasser, T. Meeting environmental challenges: The role of Human Identity (WWF-UK, 2009); available at

  2. Stern, P. & Gardner, B. The short list: The most effective actions US households can take to curb climate change. Environ. Mag. 50, 12–25 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Swim, J. K. et al. Psychology’s contributions to understanding and addressing global climate change. Am. Psychol. 66, 241–250 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Dietz, T., Gardner, G. T., Gilligan, J., Stern, P. C. & Vandenbergh, M. P. Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 18452–18456 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Evans, L. et al. Self-interest and pro-environmental behaviour. Nature Clim. Change (2012).

  6. Miller, D. T. The norm of self-interest. Am. Psychol. 54, 1053–1060 (1999).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Holmes, J. G., Miller, D. T. & Lerner, M. J. Committing altruism under the cloak of self-interest: The exchange fiction. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 38, 144–151 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Thøgersen, J. Green shopping: For selfish reasons or the common good? Am. Behav. Sci. 55, 1052–1076 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Penn, D. J. The evolutionary roots of our environmental problems: Towards a Darwinian ecology. Quart. Rev. Biol. 78, 275–302 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Haidt, J. The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science 316, 998–1002 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Mazar, N., Amir, O. & Ariely, D. The dishonesty of honest people: A theory of self-concept maintenance. J. Market. Res. 45, 633–644 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Ariely, D., Bracha, A. & Meier, S. Doing good or doing well? Image motivation and monetary incentives in behaving prosocially. Am. Econom. Rev. 99, 544–555 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Aronson, E. in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 4 edn (ed. Berkowits, L.) 1–34 (Academic, 1969).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Thøgersen, J. Norms for environmentally responsible behaviour: An extended taxonomy. J. Environ. Psychol. 26, 247–261 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Aronson, E. The return of the repressed: Dissonance theory makes a comeback. Psychol. Inquiry 3, 303–311 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Dunning, D. Self-image motives and consumer behavior: How sacrosanct self-beliefs sway preferences in the marketplace. J. Consum. Psychol. 17, 237–249 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Khan, U. & Dhar, R. Licensing effect in consumer choice. J. Market. Res. 43, 259–266 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R. & Medin, D. L. Sinning saints and saintly sinners: The paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychol. Sci. 20, 523–528 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Kasser, T. The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press, 2002).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  20. Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B. & Norton, M. I. Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science 319, 1687–1688 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Steele, C. M. in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Vol. 21: Social Psychological Studies of the Self: Perspectives and Programs (ed. Berkowitz, L.) 261–302 (Academic, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Elliot, A. J. & Devine, P. G. On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 67, 382–394 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Stone, J. & Fernandez, N. C. To practice what we preach: The use of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance to motivate behavior change. Soc. Personal. Psychol. Compass 2, 1024–1051 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. De Groot, J. & Steg, L. Value orientations and environmental beliefs in five countries: Validity of an instrument to measure egoistic, altruistic and biospheric value orientations. J. Cross-Cultural Psychol. 38, 318 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Wilson, E. O. et al. in Evolutionary Perspectives on Environmental Problems (ed. Penn, D. J.) 249–257 (Transaction, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Thøgersen, J. & Ølander, F. The dynamic interaction of personal norms and environment-friendly buying behavior: A panel study. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 36, 1758–1780 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Lindenberg, S. & Steg, L. Normative, gain and hedonic goal frames guiding environmental behavior. J. Soc. Issues 63, 117–137 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Mazar, N. & Zhong, C. B. Do green products make us better people? Psychol. Sci. 21, 494–498 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Carter, D. M. Recognizing the role of positive emotions in fostering environmentally responsible behaviors. Ecopsychology 3, 1–5 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Kretzmann, M. J. Bad blood: The moral stigmatization of paid plasma donors. J. Contemp. Ethnogr. 20, 416–441 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Tetlock, P. E., Kristel, O. V., Elson, S. B., Green, M. C. & Lerner, J. S. The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. J. Soc. Personal. Psychol. 78, 853–870 (2000).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  32. Dunn, E. W., Ashton-James, C. E., Hanson, M. D. & Aknin, L. B. On the costs of self-interested economic behavior: How does stinginess get under the skin? J. Health Psychol. 15, 627–633 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Mellers, B. A. & Schwartz, A. Decision affect theory: Emotional reactions to the outcomes of risky options. Psychol. Sci. 8, 423–429 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E. & MacGregor, D. G. Rational actors or rational fools: Implications of the affect heuristic for behavioral economics. J. Socio-Econom. 31, 329–342 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Spencer, S. J., Zanna, M. P. & Fong, G. T. Establishing a causal chain: Why experiments are often more effective than mediational analyses in examining psychological processes. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 89, 845–851 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Brewer, M. B. & Gardner, W. Who is this ‘We’? Levels of collective identity and self representations. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 71, 83–93 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Verplanken, B. & Holland, R. W. Motivated decision making: Effects of activation and self-centrality of values on choices and behavior. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 82, 434–447 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Steg, L., Perlaviciute, G., van der Werff, E & Lurvink, J. The significance of hedonic values for environmentally relevant attitudes, preferences, and actions. Environ. Behav. (2012), advance online publication.

  39. Pidgeon, N. & Fischhoff, B. The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Clim. Change 1, 35–41 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Feinberg, M. & Willer, R. Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just-world beliefs. Psychol. Sci. 22, 34–38 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Bain, P. G., Hornsey, M. J., Bongiorno, R. & Jeffries, C. Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers. Nature Clim. Change 2, 600–603 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Kahan, D. Fixing the communications failure. Nature 463, 296–297 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. McCright, A. M. & Dunlap, R. E. Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Glob. Environ. Change A 21, 1163–1172 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The manuscript has benefited from suggestions by K. E. Keizer and M. Keizer. We thank C. Furrow, L. Petersen, A. Dokter, G. Perlaviciute and B. Unal for their help with collecting data.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.W.B. and L.S. designed Study 1. J.W.B., L.S. and T.P. designed Study 2. J.W.B., E.S.G. and P.K.L. designed Study 3. J.W.B. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript; all authors commented. J.W.B. and L.S. supervised the project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. W. Bolderdijk.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 323 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bolderdijk, J., Steg, L., Geller, E. et al. Comparing the effectiveness of monetary versus moral motives in environmental campaigning. Nature Clim Change 3, 413–416 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing