Self Centred People are not Environmentalists

Carmen Pol


Have you ever considered the motives behind an environmentalist? Do you label people who care for the environment as ‘hippies’ or ‘tree-huggers’, or consider them alternative? Perhaps you are an ‘environmentalist’ yourself. If so, what drives this passion?

As someone who wants to see the environment protected, but hopes that someone else will put in the hard-yards and self-sacrifice, I see that my values reflect “self-enhancing” life goals. I could use less energy, but I like being refreshed by my air-conditioner in the heat of the day. I could reduce my carbon emissions, but I like the convenience of a car.

As Schultz and Zelezny reported in Reframing Environmental Messages to be Congruent with American Values people who have self-enhancing values have a negative correlation with environmental concern. This means that caring for the environment does not go hand-in-hand with self-oriented goals.

Environmentalists (as a generalisation) are people with values that transcend the individual and are focused on the big picture. ‘Self-transcendent’ values include (but are not limited to):

being responsible, altruistic, broad-minded, helpful, and concerned with social justice.

Self-enhancing values (contrastingly) are related to:

personal gain, power or achievement.

This study reports that the majority of the US population rated “self-enhancing” life goals most highly according to survey data, even for environmental issues. Environmental worries raised by US citizens were problems that could directly affect them. For example water pollution was of great concern. “I don’t want to drink polluted water” was the fear.

Schultz and Zelezny suggest that environmental messages need to be reframed to target individuals with self-enhancing life goals, because of this trend in the US. Instead of trying to change an individual’s values (which are concreted at an early age), a new twist can be given to environmental messages.

“Reducing energy consumption will help prevent climate change”

Could become:

“Using less energy will preserve your purse strings”.

One problem with this method is that people with self enhancing values may perceive the costs to still outweigh the benefits, and not be influenced to change.

“Saving money (and energy) is all well and good, but I’d rather be cool in summer!!”

Changing a person’s values is not a feasible approach. However, re-framing an environmental message may be more viable. There are doubts that this method will always be effective, as some environmental efforts may not have a self-enhancing ‘spin’ to put on them.

For example, conservation biology efforts in Western Australia try to save rare orchid species. This can lead to listing certain areas as nature reserves (and halting urban development) for aesthetic pleasures and conservation of endemic species. This message is more difficult to re-frame to satisfy a self-serving individual.

“Do not develop buildings, to save a pretty flower” may be the only message they hear.

There are definitely some limitations to the method of reframing environmental messages in this manner, but isn’t it worth a try? Peoples’ values are not likely to change, and planet earth deserves a fighting chance.


Things to consider:

Do you think “reframing” environmental messages will be effective in encouraging a self-enhancing audience towards change?

Can you think of a way the orchid message could be conveyed successfully to an audience with self-enhancing life goals?


Schultz, P. W., & Zelezny, L. (2003). Reframing environmental messages to be congruent with American values. Human Ecology Review, 10(2), 126-136., accessed 11th April 2011



5 comments so far

  1. madeleinegordon on

    Hi Carmen,

    I’m going to use what I learnt from today’s lecture to try and answer you questions. Firstly I think that the best way to promote the environment is to try and make people feel really good about themselves when doing it. I know with my family (and others too) that simply saying that we will save money by using less power won’t do much, but by showing me how much good I would be doing for other people (not just the environment)I would be more likely to cut my power consumption. Even now I have gone and put the temperature of the aircon up by 2degrees so the next person to turn it on won’t waste more energy.

    As to the orchid question I think by being blunt and trying to make the flower seem more human then they may have a better chance. For exaple “This flower will DIE if you do this” or something along those lines may be more effective. What do you think?


    • Carmen on

      Hi Madeleine,
      I wholeheartedly agree with you that people need to feel good about themselves to promote change, rather than a guilt trip. That is why I am not so convinced that the “reframing” of environmental messages duscussed in this paper would be effective.
      I like how you changed the orchid message, that could be quite useful! Except some people still might say, “so what?” if they don’t care for retaining biological diversity.
      Carmen Lawrences’ talk was really quite inspirational, and very useful. I wish I’d heard her talk before writing my blog post, she stimulated a lot of new thoughts, stuff I’d never considered before.
      And I definitely agree that positive messages (like the whale tail message shown later on friday) have a better impact than the shock messages like the pig being compared to a three year old girl.
      Thanks for your feedback!

  2. broganmicallef on

    Hi Carmen,

    Fantastic article. You really pulled me into the argument!

    I agree with you completely. I think one of the major problems is that, especially with regards to climate change, people think that their “small part” won’t amount to anything. I can understand where they are coming from though. Yes we all need to do our bit, but even if every Australian cut their energy use and reduced their carbon emissions, it would amount to nothing if nobody else does anything. Yes we may have the most per capita (I think that’s how the argument goes), but the total amount is much less than countries like China or America.

    I definitely think that reframing messages is therefore the way to go.

    I’m not sure if the personalisation of the orchid is the way to go (Carmen, you did mention the shock pig message). I think people are so accustomed to personalisation/shock messages that they tend to tune out. I haven’t decided on what would be the best way to frame the message, but perhaps making people look at the bigger picture could work. How can we be expected to “solve” the big problems we’re facing if we can’t even save endangered orchids?

  3. Carmen on

    Hi Brogan,

    Yes, often we think “What difference can I make in the big scheme of things?” and become overwhelmed as an individual. That’s when it becomes important to target large groups of people, and certain cultures — so that more and more people become aware of environmental issues, and want to change. But of course, every person in this process is important – they might tell their friends, who will tell THEIR friends, and so on.

    Reframing messages does have a lot of drawbacks though, but if we reframe things in a positive light, or in a way that people can relate to it can be much more effective than the “Doom and gloom” shock messages. Personally, I think these messages are very offputting and make people shut out the true message behind a campaign.

    I like your spin on the orchid message. Looking at the little things and how these affect the planet as a whole. Breaking things down as well might be an effective method — instead of overwhelming people with “Saving the planet” the messages can focus instead on doable things: like taking shorter showers, carpooling to work, not littering, recycling, saving a flower..etc etc.
    Some very interesting communication strategies to think about from this paper, and also from our classes.

    Thanks for your feedback!!

  4. Ryan Wilson on

    Hi Carmen,
    I think the need to reframe messages to conserve our natural systems and resources is an unfortunate but essential one. Many people are obviously far more concerned with their immediate satisfaction and comfort than with the preservation of the world that sustains us. Perhaps the best way to tackle this issue is to somehow include both self-serving and wider benefits within the message so as to not make the message too narrow and audience specific.
    ie. Take the bus and you can save money, read that book you’ve been eyeing off for months AND reduce your carbon footprint.

    Another possible way to frame the message is to appeal to peoples’ vanity and self-conscious nature by making others aware of their self-centred actions. Many people are happy to be selfish if others aren’t directly aware of their selfish behaviour, but advertise it for everybody to see and most people would blush with embarrassment. Possible applications include posting local residential water usage at local shopping centres or making energy consumption data for households available online. I thought Carmen Lawrence made an excellent point of this in her lecture.

    I also think that even most inherently self-centred people are altruistic when it comes to the wellbeing and future of their children. If you can frame a message in a way that quantifies or illustrates vividly enough the damage that their actions are imposing on their children’s future, this might be enough to make them stop and reconsider those actions. In the context of the orchid debate, perhaps a message such as: Is your experience of life more valuable than your children’s? Then why shouldn’t they be able to enjoy this beautiful species in its natural habitat like you can?


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