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# The effects of ideological value framing and symbolic racism on pro-environmental behavior

### Abstract

Environmental degradation continues to be one of the greatest threats to human well-being, posing a disproportionate burden on communities of color. Environmental action, however, fails to reflect this urgency, leaving social-behavioral research at the frontier of environmental conservation, as well as environmental justice. Broad societal consensus for environmental action is particularly sparse among conservatives. The lack of even small personal sacrifices in favor of the environment could be attributed to the relatively low salience of environmental threats to white Americans and the partisan nature of environmentalism in America. We evaluate if (1) environmental action is causally related to the ideological value framing of an environmental issue; and (2) if the perceived race of impacted communities influences environmental action as a function of racial resentment. With this large-scale, original survey experiment examining the case of air-pollution, we find weak support for the first, but we do not find evidence for the second. We advance our understanding of environmental justice advocacy and environmental inaction in the United States.

### Protocol registration

The stage 1 protocol for this Registered Report was accepted in principle on 10 June 2021. The protocol, as accepted by the journal, can be found at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.14769558.

## Introduction

The simultaneous urgency and scarcity of environmental action, and the social inequalities that result, highlights the question of how to elicit environmental action. While environmental concern has been linked to the intent to act environmentally and a reported willingness to make economic sacrifices for the environment1, it does not fully explain patterns of environmental behavior2. There is a necessary change in focus away from mere concern towards the environment, and how ideology might shape this relationship3. Though numerous models have attempted to explain the determinants of environmental behavior, the attitude-action gap remains: concern in itself is not sufficient to reliably predict environmental action4. As such, social-behavioral research has presented itself as a promising avenue for discovering constructive approaches to achieving environmental action, as well as environmental justice by reducing inequalities in the impact of environmental degradation.

A promising area of exploration for a wider uptake of environmental action, which has widely been labeled as a liberal issue, is the use of value framing or “moral reframing” to broaden the appeal of environmental action to conservative audiences5. Currently, environmental messages not only do not appeal to conservatives, but have been shown to actively repel them from environmental decisions, such as supporting energy efficiency6. Political ideology in itself has been conceptualized as a means of deriving social ontologies, where more ideologically inclined people have consistent views even on issues that do not directly relate to the substance of their ideology7. Among conservatives, a skeptical or adversarial stance towards environmentalism could be an example of ontologies at play. Reframing environmental messaging in terms of conservative values has been shown to shrink the difference in environmental attitudes between liberals and conservatives, and therefore shows promise as a method to also increase environmental action8.

This paper is situated in the persistent and disturbing trend that the social impacts of environmental degradation disproportionately burden marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, globally and in the United States. The phenomenon has been labeled as environmental injustice or environmental racism, which manifests itself as increased exposure and increased vulnerability to air, water, and soil pollution, which environmentally privileged communities are largely exempt from9, 10. Environmental injustice and environmental privilege are two sides of the same coin: access to a clean and safe environment is available only to some, usually white, Americans10, 11. Understanding environmental injustice as such raises the question as to whether environmental concern or environmental action can therefore be predicted by racial resentment. Building on Park and Pellow’s framework of environmental privilege, the willingness to take environmental action, or to make a small personal sacrifice for the benefit of the environment and the people effected by it, can be understood as a willingness to pay for a different community’s access to a healthy and safe environment. Therefore, and in accordance with a small body of literature, we anticipate that racial resentment will stifle environmental action12, 13, as relatively environmentally privileged white Americans would be less inclined to support a predominantly Black community’s environmental well being10.

As of yet, the majority of research related to environmental justice has focused on health and economic challenges as outcomes of racist and unequal systems14, however a small set of studies have also examined racism as a potential suppressor of environmental concern12, 15, 16. Benegal found that racial resentment correlated with reduced concern over climate change, particularly after Obama was elected president, indicating a “spillover of racialization” suggesting racial resentment as a cause of environmental indifference. Chanin found that racial resentment or symbolic racism predicted lower indices of self reported environmental concern based on data from the General Social Survey16, and Dietz and colleagues found that racial resentment also predicted lower donation rates to a water quality organization following the severe water contamination in Flint, Michigan12. This paper seeks to further explore the link between racial resentment and environmental indifference, while also utilizing value framing to appeal to audiences across the political spectrum5, 8, 17.

To test how value framing, and symbolic racism activated by the perceived race of communities impacted by environmental threats influence environmental action, we designed and fielded an experiment to liberals and conservatives where we manipulate independently the value of environmental protection by invoking conservative or liberal ideology, and the racial composition of the communities being impacted by environmental issues using a personalized story. We focus on a specific form of environmental action: donation to an environmental organization, which can be made at the expense of giving up raffle tickets that respondents could use toward a gift card.

For ease of presentation, we refer to “value aligned” treatments when the intended ideological frame of the treatment aligns with respondents’ ideology, and “value misaligned” treatments, when the opposite is the case. For example, the conservative value framed treatment would be value aligned when assigned to a conservative respondent, and value misaligned when assigned to a liberal respondent. The racial composition of communities impacted was signaled by the names of individuals in a story who have suffered adverse health consequences by air pollution, also referred to as race manipulation through the paper.

We hypothesize that:

### H1

Respondents presented with a value-aligned treatment will donate at higher rates than those presented with a value-misaligned treatment.

We predict that donation rates will vary as a function of value alignment even when controlling for the race manipulation, a measure of environmental concern and symbolic racism in addition to respondent-level controls for gender, age, race, education, income, and ideology. For more detail on these measures, see the “Methods” section.

We also hypothesize that:

### H2

Respondents with high levels of symbolic racism primed with a story about a Black family will donate less.

We predict that donation rates will vary as a function of the interaction between the race manipulation and the symbolic racism score of respondents when controlling for value-alignment, the race manipulation, environmental concern, symbolic racism in addition to respondent-level controls for gender, age, race, education, income, and ideology.

### Experimental design and procedures

Prior to designing and conducting the survey experiment detailed below, we conducted a pilot study that guided the design of our experimental treatments and influenced our proposed analyses. For a detailed description of this pre-test see the relevant section of the Supplementary Information (SI), the main conclusions we derived from it are summarized in the “Methods” section.

Our study proceeds in two steps, i.e., in two separate data collections (for a flow chart, see Fig. S2). In the first data collection, each respondent receives a set of questions that aim to measure symbolic racism and environmental concern, which we treat as baseline measures. At this instance respondents also answer questions about their demographic background and ideology. About three weeks later, in a separate survey, respondents are given the chance participate in a follow-up questionnaire where they are presented with only one of four possible treatments which we randomly assign with equal probability, and are then given the opportunity to donate tokens towards an environmental organization, Earthjustice, or keep the tokens as raffle tickets for a gift card (referred to as: second data collection). This experimental design places respondents in a real-stakes decision-making scenario where they ought to give up a small personal benefit (maximizing their chances of winning the raffle) in order to give resources to an environmental organization.

Each treatment consists of a factual paragraph about air pollution, a short narrative about a family impacted by it, and a paragraph framed to appeal to liberal or conservative values (the full instruments for both data collections are included in the SI). The value frames were designed based on previous research that aimed to prime political ideology17. The stories about families only differ in the names of the family members, which were chosen from lists of names typically perceived as Black or as white while keeping social class constant18. The primary outcome of the study is respondents’ decision of how many tokens to donate of the 10 they are each awarded, which we operationalize as a continuous outcome (but we also discuss an alternative operationalization as a robustness check). Other key quantities include respondents’ environmental concern which is operationalized as a scale based on16, and a measure of symbolic racism, also operationalized as a scale based on12, 16, 19. We measure respondents’ political ideology on the basis of respondents’ self reports and the classification used by TurkPrime that provides services to researchers fielding their survey to Amazon Mechanical Turk Workers, but we also discuss alternative operationalizations as robustness checks.

## Data availability

We deposited the data for the pilot on Open Science Framework (https://osf.io/7cxe9/), alongside the data for the main study.

## Code availability

We deposited the code for the pre-test on Open Science Framework (https://osf.io/7cxe9/), alongside the code for the main analyses.

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## Acknowledgements

Funding is provided by the New York University Abu Dhabi Capstone Funding Committee, by the NYUAD Center for Interacting Urban Networks (CITIES), funded by Tamkeen under the NYUAD Research Institute Award CG001 and by the Swiss Re Institute under the Quantum Cities™ initiative, and by discretionary research funds of Kinga Makovi awarded by New York University Abu Dhabi. The Capstone Funding Committee or CITIES had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The authors thank Maria Abascal, PJ Henry, Thomas Marlow and Robb Willer for their comments on the project.

## Author information

Authors

### Contributions

The study was jointly designed by K.M. and H.K.G. The pilot data were collected by H.K.G. and analyzed by H.K.G. and K.M. The data for the study were collected by H.K.G. and analyzed by H.K.G. and K.M. The manuscript and supplementary information were written by H.K.G. and K.M.

### Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kinga Makovi.

## Ethics declarations

### Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Makovi, K., Kasak-Gliboff, H. The effects of ideological value framing and symbolic racism on pro-environmental behavior. Sci Rep 11, 22189 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-00329-z

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• DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-00329-z