Human Nature & Environmentally Responsible Behavior

Stephen Kaplan, in Journal of Social Issues, 56:3, 2000
Read January 2011

In this article, Kaplan argues that appealing to people’s sense of altruism, although often used in communications about environmental issues, is limited and flawed. Instead, Kaplan proposes a participatory approach, which he calls the “Reasonable Person Model.” This entails introducing an audience to an environmental issue, but allowing audience members to create their own solutions to the problem. The Reasonable Person Model aims to reduce helplessness and generate solutions that are desirable from the actor’s standpoint.

While I do not plan to use participatory methods in my next prototype, Kaplan provides two key insights that I believe can be applied to communication design.

  1. that focusing on the negative via altruistic appeals leads to undesirable reactions, and
  2. that audiences should be able to learn at their own pace.

These ideas also validate several of my still-developing design recommendations.

The problem, writes Kaplan, is that focusing on altruism as a motive for environmentally-responsible behavior has

“several inadvertent consequences, including contributing to helplessness and stressing sacrifice rather than quality-of-life-enhancing solutions” (491).

Since altruism requires sacrifice, there is “a powerful, if unintended, message, namely that [environmentally responsible behavior] inherently leads to a reduction in the quality of life” (494).

People do not want to diminish their quality of life, of course. If someone believes that environmentally-friendly choices automatically lead to undesirable results for their personal lifestyle, they will be unwilling to even consider such choices.

The focus on sacrifice, as well as campaigns that tell the viewer what to do, Kaplan writes, can lead to

“situations in which people, feeling guilty about their resistance to adopting alternatives they feel are unacceptable, resolve the conflict by tuning out the message and avoiding such messages in the future” (500).

During my participatory research, some participants expressed feelings of guilt for not performing certain eco-friendly behaviors. While I cannot control each individual’s reaction to the message, this is certainly not an outcome that I want to occur with my audiences.

Another aspect of this article relevant for my thesis is that Kaplan is a strong advocate for learning. He does not recommend simply presenting people with a lot of information, because more information can lead “not only to greater concern but also a greater sense of helplessness” (498). Instead, Kaplan suggests designing campaigns in a way that allow people to understand the issues and explore their own solutions to the particular problem.

To support his point, the author outlines three aspects of information processing with strong behavioral and motivational implications.

  1. People are motivated to learn and understand, and “hate being confused or disoriented” (498).
  2. People want to explore, and they “prefer acquiring information at their own pace and in answer to their own questions” (498).
  3. People want to participate and be involved (498).

The second point validates one of my potential design recommendations—that viewers should be presented with a small amount of information and should be given the option to find out more. For example, from my participatory research, I had a hunch that it is a good idea to give people a small amount of information about an issue, and allow them to obtain more if they desire.


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