- University of North Florida psychologists set up an experimental study, recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, involving a sample of 231 college students that identified as Democrat or Republican. The study was to test if behavioral "nudges" toward being environmentally-friendly can backfire.
- In different scenarios of the experiment, the students were nonchalantly asked to "toss" a plastic water bottle; in some scenarios there was a recycling bin alongside of a trash bin, and in some scenarios there was an easy-to-reach trash bin much closer than the recycling bin. After tossing the bottle, the students were asked about various political beliefs including environmental identities and if they would support a "campus green fund" with a $20 donation. There was also a control scenario where the student didn't have to toss a bottle, but was still asked questions.
- The study found that Democrats, as a group, were less likely to support the green fund after recycling the plastic bottle. On the other hand Republicans who had just recycled the bottle were much more supportive of the green fund than those who threw the bottle in the trash. "Somehow the act of recycling among Democrats actually reduced their environmental identities, and that’s what led to the lessened support for the proposal on campus," said psychologist Heather Truelove to The Washington Post.
Due to the small scale of this study, The Washington Post explained that such findings cannot be "taken as proof" that the act of recycling can trigger backfire effects, especially because there was no certainty that the students knew a plastic bottle was recyclable. However the study shows a potentially interesting trend in environmental mentality—at least among college students.
"Nudging Republicans to do easy behaviors might help promote future environmental policy support, whereas nudging Democrats to do easy behaviors might backfire," said Truelove to The Washington Post. Overall, the study suggests that "nudging" anyone to be environmentally conscious may not work out the way it is intended; one person may feel the need to do as much as possible, while another person may recycle one plastic bottle and feel "fulfilled," leading to no further efforts.
This is an interesting correlation for industry leaders to keep in mind when trying to combat recycling issues with educational programs. While the concept of education and influencing environmentally friendly behaviors seems exclusively beneficial, the practice may not be as effective as intended.