Why Do We Do Things We Know Are Bad for the Environment?

Over the last couple decades, it has become common knowledge that we’ve got some problems with the environment. “Global warming” has become a household word, and people are starting to realize that some of the ways we do things aren’t sustainable.

At the same time, not much has changed in the way we act. Environmental awareness hasn’t translated into environmentally friendly behavior.

The reasons for this are complex. Some are about politics, some are about economics. And some are about psychology.

Recently, a team of researchers from Duke University in the United States and Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel proposed one possible psychological factor in our resistance to change. Their idea was that was that the way we interpret and rationalize our past actions might influence how likely we are to reform our behavior in the future.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers carried out a series of experiments looking at how people decided whether or not to use household pesticides in different conditions. The researchers chose pesticide use as a way of testing environmental decision making because pesticide use is common in the United States but seems to have significant environmental consequences, including by raising cancer risk in children.

The first thing the study looked at was whether providing information about the hazards associated with pesticide use would influence people’s decision making. As expected, when a warning label was added to the pesticide, people reached for the bug spray significantly less often.

The researchers then made things a little more complicated by having some people use the pesticide before reading the warning label. This situation mirrors the real world, where we often don’t learn about the environmental costs of things until after we’ve been doing them for a while.

It turned out that when people used the pesticide prior to reading about the hazards of pesticide use, the warning had no effect. In other words, informing people about the environmental effects of the bug spray deterred people from using the pesticide the first time but didn’t make a difference for people who had already used it.

In several experiments that followed, the researchers tested several alternative explanations for this phenomenon and came to the conclusion that the act of using the pesticide in and of itself really seemed to make people less likely to take information about the environmental effects into account. Additionally, it emerged that just thinking about using the pesticide was enough to lower the impact of the warning.

An explanation put forward by the authors of the study is that our past actions signal to us what our priorities are. So if we use a pesticide, then find out that pesticide has an adverse effect on the environment, we interpret the fact that we’ve already used the pesticide as meaning we care more about getting rid of bugs than we do about the environment.

The way our previous behaviors influence how we think about our future actions could be one factor in why raising environmental awareness isn’t enough to actually make us do things in more sustainable ways. Hopefully, a better understanding of the psychology behind environmental decision making will open up ways to make progress on moving from awareness to action.

What d’you think? What d’you take into account when you make decisions about how your actions influence the environment? Please share below!


  1. Idadho on July 27, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    This is quite easy to understand. Since the brain processes emotional thought before it processes intellectual thought, the prior use has calmed the emotional thought so it has minimal control or impact. Reading the warning is an intellectual process that cannot override the previously complacent emotion that was rewarded by reducing the bug population.
    When the emotion is directed by the intellect to be concerned and complacency has not been established by prior use, the emotion has the ability to take the warning and use it to impact use of the pesticide.
    But, this author needs to stay within his specialty. Many of us know how to process science issues and know that ‘man caused global warming’ is a scam and that natural forces are causing climate change like they have for thousands of years. We don’t live in fear of passing gas (methane) or exhaling CO2.

    • Neil Petersen on July 28, 2016 at 9:05 am

      True, emotion directing the intellect can lead people to believe all sorts of things.