Beliefs Influence Green Behavior: Lessons from Guatemala

futurelab default header

by: David Wigder

It is well established that consumer beliefs influence purchasing behavior. For consumer products that support or reinforce underlying consumer beliefs, marketers should focus on activating favorable behavior.

If, however, attributes of the product do not align with underlying consumer beliefs, marketers face the more difficult challenge of first reshaping beliefs before having any reasonable prospect of influencing subsequent behavior. As professors Scott Atran, Douglas Medin and Norbert Ross demonstrate in their recent paper, “The Cultural Minds: Environmental Decision Making and Cultural Modeling Within and Across Populations” Psychological Review, 2005, environmental beliefs are no different. Cultural norms – “shared values, beliefs and associated behaviors” impact decision making regarding the environment (in this case, sustainable forest practices). In doing so, this study has direct implications for green marketers in terms of who they target as customers and how they shape beliefs and influence behavior towards everything green.

Atran, et al, conducted research with three culturally distinct groups within the Guatemalan lowland rainforests. By studying populations that lived within the same physical environment, Atran et al, isolated the influence of cultural (beliefs) on behavior while holding economic, demographic, and ecological factors constant. Three groups – the native Izta’ Maya, Spanish-speaking immigrant Ladinos and immigrant Q’eqchi’ Maya – live within lowland Maya region, an area that faces the threat of ecological disaster from “differential use of common-pool resources, such as forest plants, by different cultural groups exploiting the same habitat” – a classic example of the tragedy of the commons.

What is surprising is that “different populations, who engage in the same activities, have very different impacts to the environment”. Atran et al, set out to understand not only why this was the case, but also to identify the key contributing factors which shaped behaviors toward the environment.

Key learning for green marketers:

Shared values predict behavior. Atran et. al. demonstrated that beliefs predict human impact on plants (deforestation) among the three groups studied. Each group varied considerably in its propensity to practice sustainable forestry: simply put, the Itza sustained their land, the Q’eqchi did not and the Ladinos were somewhere in the middle. Atran et. al. demonstrated that beliefs (e.g., ecological centrality of plants, value of plants for cash, wood or shelter, etc.) were highly correlated with human impact.

Shared values create a contextual framework for decision making. People with shared values and beliefs tend to have similar contextual frameworks (mental models) that result in similar decisions being made – even when confronted with new or unfamiliar stimuli. Environmental decision-making is no different.

Religion motivates behaviors, and may even override economic self-interests. The Itza’ are a religious people and the belief in forest spirits is strong, especially among the men. Such beliefs are powerful motivating factors which dictate behaviors (which animals and plants to protect, etc.) in order to placate spirits or win their favor. While a delicate subject for marketers, religion can be a powerful motivating force for certain target segments.

Education is critical to shaping/evolving beliefs. People do not appreciate or value what they do not understand. In this study, for example, the Ladinos were learning sustainable practices from the Itza’s, which resulted in measurable improvements in forest sustainability over time.

Influencers matter. Trusted expert do shape beliefs and influence behavior. Yet, people have to be receptive to the message. Atran et al, found that the more overlap between expert and social networks, the greater the influence exerted (in this case knowledge transferred regarding sustainable practices).

Multiple channels and touch points required to reinforce message. Information gets passed through a diffused process, such that “multiple interaction pathways” may be required to have significant impact (at the individual and communal levels). The message can be acquired directly (in this case stories passed down from generation to generation or relayed through expert and social networks) or through hands on experience (trial and error). Reinforcing the message through all channels (social networks) tends to add to diffuse the message more rapidly.

Original Post: