Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior?

The article describes a few of the most influential and commonly used analytical frameworks, amongst the numerous theoretical frameworks developed, to explain the gap between the possession of environmental knowledge and awareness, versus displaying pro-environmental behavior.

1.     Early US linear progression models

Suggest that:

The limitation showed that in most cases, increase in knowledge and awareness did not lead to pro-environmental behavior.

Many communication strategies today are based on the assumption that more knowledge will lead to more enlightened behavior, however changing behavior is difficult. Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975, 1980, asserts the need to first measure the attitude toward that particular behavior.

2.     Altruism, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior Models

Various researchers hypothesized that in order to act pro-environmentally, individuals must focus beyond themselves and be concerned about the community at large. This state of ‘actively caring’ can only occur if the need for self-esteem, belonging, personal control, self-efficacy, and optimism have been satisfied. Allen and Ferrand (1999) however, contends that there was a significant relationship only between personal control and sympathy.

3.     Sociological Models

Sociological and psychological factors are independent from each other and can be influenced and changed.

Blake (1999) points out that most pro-environmental behavior models are limited because they fail to take into account individual, social, and institutional constraints and assume that humans are rational and make systematic use of the information available to them.

Kollmuss and Ageyman incorporated above and other models to analyse pro-environmental behavior through 3 main factors, acknowledging that the factors may be inter-related and may not have clear boundaries:

1. Demographic

2. External

  1. Institutional
  2. Economic
  3. Social and cultural

3. Internal

a. Motivation (e.g. Should I bike to work today, even though it rains, or do I drive?)

b. Environmental knowledge

c. Values

  • Childhood experiences in nature
  • Experiences of pro-environmental destruction
  • Pro- environmental values held by the family
  • Pro-environmental organizations
  • Role models (friends or teachers)
  • Education.

d. Attitudes (people choose the pro-environmental behaviors that demand the least cost (which may include time and effort needed to undertake that behavior)

e. Environmental awareness

  • Non-immediacy of many ecological problems
  • Slow and gradual ecological destruction
  • Complex systems
  • Emotional involvement
  • Emotional non-investment
  • Emotional reactions

f. Locus of control (People with a strong internal locus of control believe that their actions can bring about change, and vice versa)

g. Responsibility and priorities


Internal and external factors play a large part in shaping one’s pro-environmental behavior, and therein lies the barriers.

The question of what shapes pro-environmental behavior is such a complex one that it cannot be visualized through one single framework or diagram. We can only aim to achieve better understanding in this complex field.

The authors proposed their own model of predictors of environmental behavior and assert that they do not attribute a direct relationship to environmental knowledge and pro-environmental behavior. Education does not necessarily mean increased pro-environmental behavior. They termed environmental knowledge, values, and attitudes, together with emotional involvement simply as ‘pro-environmental consciousness’.

They also asserts that old behavior patterns/habits form a very strong barrier that is often overlooked in this field. Take for example an individual who has always driven to work. It will be rather tough to break that old habit and start taking public transport again (what with the ridiculous peak hour rush/overcrowded population). Granted, drivers will also be met with incessant traffic jams, but at least they are in the comfort of their car (motivation factor). Although in this case, there is also the issue of institutional factor – the public transport infrastructure could be lacking.

Would you consider taking public transport if you own a car and drive for the sake of the environment? Why yes, and why not?


Kollmuss, A and J Agyeman. (2002). Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research 8(3): 239- 260.


2 comments so far

  1. durianshells on

    Personally, i feel that living in Singapore, the public transportation is rather convenient and if one owns a car, they could consider not using their car. This however is not that easy for larger countries that do not have such a robust transportation system. As mentioned by the authors, the inconvenience may cause people to not engage in pro-environmental behaviour. This is also not easy for businesses that require transportation to maintain their businesses. In Singapore, most people probably do it due to the economic savings and not for their intention to engage in environmental behaviour.
    In Singapore as well, unlike in other countries, we do not experience environmental problems like oil spills or environmental degradation from young and there is no immediacy in ecological problems. Most people view immediate survival like insecurity about employment, career prospects and financial issues as priorities and do not have much time for such civic concerns.
    In my opinion, one of the ways that the Singapore government can encourage people to engage in environmental behaviour is to provide certain financial incentives in certain conditions. Take for example, in Europe, countries like France, Germany, Austria and Greece, there are financial incentives for business and individual homeowners like grants upfront. There are others like tax reductions yearly and also loans at reduced rates for those deciding to install clean energy like solar panels. (ESTIF 2006) (http://www.estif.org/fileadmin/estif/content/policies/downloads/Financial_Incentive-solar_thermal.pdf)

    In Singapore, others can be like giving incentives for people who decide to install LED lights in their homes to save energy and to give reduced prices for LED lights to help boost the adoption of such technology.

    • travelrene on

      As what the blogger has mentioned, there are many factors that influence pro-environmental behavior. I agree that the internal factor is one of the major factors which shape a person’s mindset and behave in a way that is environmentally responsible. I do feel that the underlying values a person has play a very important role in pro-environmental behavior. For example, a person who comes from a family with strong family value of being environmental responsible tends to behave pro-environmentally. For instance, if there is a family value of “do not litter everywhere and throw the rubbish only in the rubbish bin” being conveyed by the parents to the children since they were young, this may lead to their pro-environmental behavior that they will not litter irresponsibly.

      Besides, I also agree that a long term behavior or habit can be a very strong barrier for people to act environmentally. The illustration of driving to work instead of taking public transport is a good example. A person who drive for a long period of time may be quite reluctant to stop driving and take public transport even though he realize the importance of being environmental cautious and want to act environmentally.

      The same applies to smokers. A smoker may have well educated that smoking will contributes to air pollution and affect health condition. At the same time, he may also aware of the environmental issue, whereby reduce the action of smoking can help in reducing the issue of air pollution. However, this may not triggered his pro-environmental behavior. His long term smoking behavior has become a huge barrier; whereby he may not quit smoking just to be environmental friendly.

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