Reframing Environmental Messages to be Congruent with American Values

This research article explores the relationship between values, attitudes about environmental issues, and pro environmental behavior in the American context.

Can Self-Interest Lead to Environmental Behavior?

It is important to remember that an individual’s lifestyle choices with respect to environmental issues are based on his or her values. Values are important life goals; they are standards which serve as guiding principles in a person’s life (Schwartz 1992; Schwartz and Bilsky 1987).

The focus in this article is on the values found in the United States, which are also shared among other Western countries such as Canada and Western Europe.

American Values

Kohls (1984) of the Washington International Center, devised a list of 13 commonly shared American values.

  1. Personal control over the environment – The belief that each U.S. individual look out for his or her self interest by controlling nature and one’s environment.
  2. Change – Change is associated with personal progress, improvement, and growth.
  3. Time and its control – As one of the most valued resources; time is used wisely on productive tasks to improve one’s personal achievement, status and esteem.
  4. Equality egalitarianism – The belief that everyone is equal and the disregard of hierarchies in class and power.
  5. Individualism and privacy – Individuality is valued above group cohesion and privacy is desirable with no association to isolation.
  6. Self-help conceptSacrifice and hard work are highly valued in the U.S.  to attain personal success.
  7. Competition and free enterpriseAmericans are driven by competition rather than competition to achieve one’s personal best.
  8. Future orientation – The belief that they are in control of the future.
  9. Action work orientation – Viewing action as superior to inaction and value hard work versus leisure because it produces greater personal success, material wealth and status.
  10. Informality – Comparatively casual in dress and speech.
  11. Directness, openness, and honesty – Personal opinions and feelings are more valued than others.
  12. Practicality and efficiency – Americans are philosophically pragmatic and industrious.
  13. Materialism acquisitiveness – Material possessions are valued as outward products of hard work and success.

Schwartz’s Model of Human Values

According to Schwartz’ model, self-transcendence is comprised of 18 life goals, including goals such as being broad-minded, helpful, honest, forgiving and loyal. In contrast, self-enhancement comprised of goals like social power, authority, wealth, success, ambition, and influence.

It is not that case that individuals are self -transcendent but having varying degrees of self-transcendence. Scoring high on self-transcendence does not necessitate a low score on self-enhancement.

Values, Environmental Attitudes, and Behavior

There are three valued-based attitudes.

  1. Egoistic concernsfocused on self, and self-oriented goals. (Health, quality of life)
  2. Social-altruistic concerns focused on other people (Children, family, community)
  3. Biosphere concerns focused on well-being of living things. (Plants, animals, trees)

American Values and Environmental Appeals

The environmental movement in the U.S. has largely been a backlash against the mainstream American lifestyle. Protecting the environment is framed as requiring sacrifice; using less, giving up some available comforts and incurring inconvenience. Values of self-enhancement are found to correlate negatively with environmental behaviour, while values of self-transcendence correlate positively.

Creating Value-Based Messages

Kaplan (2000) argued that it is possible to frame environmental appeals in such a way that they are not inconsistent with self-interest. Three suggestions for framing environmental messages are through;

  1. Working within motivations and inclinations characteristic
  2. Treating human cognitive capacity as a resource
  3. Engaging motivations other than altruism.


People high in self-transcendence would continue to serve, but now people high in self-enhancement would also conserve. Self-transcendence values do not mean a lack of concern for self. A person who has biospheric concerns also cares of the effects on people, future generations and self. If the behaviour cannot be framed in a manner consistent with self-interest, then an alternative approach is to alter the cost/benefit ratio of the behavior (Jorireman et al. 2001a).

Changing the values may be the only effective long-term solution but the change will be gradual and requires experiences to impact our existing beliefs and values. Understanding the link between values, environmental attitudes and behaviors, is important in developing an effective environmental message. In order to increase the effectiveness of environmental messages, it is advisable to frame the appeal in a way that is consistent with self-enhancing values.

Does framing the message in a manner consistent with self-enhancing values lead to greater caring and action? And if so, for whom?

Schulze, PW and Zelezny, L. (2003). Reframing Environmental Messages to be Congruent with American Values. Human Ecology Review 10(3): 126- 136



2 comments so far

  1. uwa20908686 on

    The above commercial: Keep California Beautiful is one that takes an interesting twist. Through the fusion of irony and humor, it spreads the key message of every individual’s responsibility in protecting California’s coasts and beaches. Sarcasm is effectively played up from beginning till the end.

    In my opinion, it is a successful environmental conservation ad. The way I read this commercial is in its emphasis on terms like ‘trashing the beach’, ‘building a garbage castle’, ‘the party’s isn’t over till we trash the beach’. It appeals to our self-enhancing values by associating the careless act of scattering trash around the beach with a certain degree of power. The commercial works as it triggers the viewer’s thoughts about whether such acts of ‘power’ or sense of achievement derived is appropriate when the consequences are simultaneously highlighted. Significantly, it suggests personal control over the environment – congruent with the American belief that each individual looks out for his/her self interest i.e NOT getting poked in the feet by a hypodermic needle – by controlling nature and one’s environment. We recognize our ability to influence the cleanliness of the beach.

    I agree that understanding the link between geographic values and its culture, environmental attitudes and behaviors is essential in developing an effective environmental message. By framing the message in a manner consistent with self-enhancing values instead of self-transcendence values (that is further apart from self-interest), it brings about stronger motivations to care for the environment.

    The casual ‘tongue-in-cheek’ beach party approach of the commercial supports American high correspondance with informality. The characters’ dialogues represent directness, openness and honesty – another priority American value. Although these personal opinions and feelings carry irony in their meanings, the general direction of theKeep California Beautiful commercial aligns with common American values to stimulate a change in behavior.

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