Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Environmental self-identity

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Environmental self-identity:
What is environmental self-identity and what impact does it have on emotion and behaviour?


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A scientific consensus has been reached relative to the earths[grammar?] climate; human-caused climate change is happening, and we are officially facing a global climate crisis. The IPCC released a report in 2018 (IPCC, 2018) outlining the impending doom that is facing humanity (inclusive of rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns causing impending natural disasters that could be catastrophic) if the global temperature isn’t stabilised at 1.5°C (see Figure 1., Figure 2., and Figure 3.). Emphasis has been placed on the need for drastic action from policy makers and governments down to the individual to take place now, to stop what is being noted as the defining issue of our time.

With a surge of information so threatening to the livelihoods of all inhabitants of earth, finding ways to mitigate the effects of climate change as an individual can be an overwhelming and daunting. But it is possible. Environmental self-identity outlines an individuals’[grammar?] values and beliefs relative to the environment; having this identity has been illustrated to motivate and produce pro-environmental behavioural change. This chapter focuses on what environmental-self identity is and how it can impact an individuals[grammar?] emotion and behaviour. Understanding how to harness this identity to create change in human behaviour will be illustrated through psychological motivation and emotion theories.

Environmental self-identity will be looked at through the lens of cognitive appraisals, the norm-activation model, self-determination theory, the theory of planned behaviour and social identity theory, amongst others. These concepts are evaluated and discussed in application to climate change mitigating behaviours. These theories and research can help provide the individual with ways they can make a difference in the climate crisis, through identifying their self with the environment. Below is a quote by teen activist Greta Thunberg; it emphasises the power of the individual in creating a path to change. Self-identity not only paves the way for the individual, but it too can motivate change in others.

Figure 1. Glaciers melting on a beach in Iceland, 2019.
Figure 3. Drought affected landscape, Australia.
Figure 2. Agricultural fires burning through the Amazon Rainforest, 2019.

Case study

Figure 4. Global Climate Strike, September 2019. Sydney, Australia.

In September of 2019, a youth-led global climate strike was participated in by 7.6 million people across 185 countries worldwide, making it one of the biggest organized global protests in history (Global Climate Strike, 2019). Sydney, Australia, had the support of 80,000 people protesting at The Domain, see Figure 4. Instigated by Swedish school student/climate activist Greta Thunberg, this strike rallied the support of individuals from all walks of life, as a call to arms for legislation to be put in place to protect the planet from human-caused climate change (Schiermeier et al., 2019). Strikes were coordinated to happen simultaneously with the United Nations Climate Summit 2019, held in New York City (2019). With support of scholars and scientists, the strike protested for regulatory intervention for the cutting down of carbon emissions (2019). This emphasises how persuasive environmental self-identity can be in terms of motivating action.

Focus questions
  • What is environmental self-identity?
  • How can environmental self-identity impact emotion?
  • How can environmental self-identity impact behaviour?
  • What are the psychological theories supporting this impact on emotion and behaviour?

Environmental Self-Identity

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An antecedent to pro-environmental intentions and behaviours is environmental self-identity (Qasim et al., 2019). Personal values and morals are mediated by self-identity, thus the significance of pro-environmental attitudes in engagement in sustainable behaviours. To provide context to how environmental self-identity can impact emotion and thus behaviour, first clarification is needed on what environmental self-identity is. It is also discussed relative to cognitive dissonance.

What is self-identity?

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Self-identity is who an individual is. The self-concept is an accumulation of beliefs one has about themselves, informed by past, present and desired future behaviours (Jeanes, 2019). Social description, inclusive of aspects such as culture, ethnicity, and gender, mediate these beliefs. Together, this creates an individuals[grammar?] self-identity. Environmental self-identity builds on this concept. It is the extent to which an individual sees themselves as actionably environmentally friendly (Van der Werff et al., 2014). An individual encompassing a strong environmental self-identity will see themselves as an environmentally friendly person, and thus be more inclined to behave in a manner that aligns with this identity. Environmental self-identity is comprised of two aspects. One being past environmental behaviours (2014)[grammar?]. The other, biospheric values[grammar?]. These are the stable principles one holds towards nature and the environment (2014). Strong biospheric values equate to caring for the environment, and consistently allowing this consideration of nature judge behaviour. Strong environmental self-identity lies in engagement with pro environmental behaviours. If an individual has strong biospheric values, yet doesn’t act pro-environmentally, they don’t have a strong environmental self-identity (2014).

Cognitive dissonance

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This[which?] example of not having a strong environmental self-identity is an example of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) states that when beliefs and attitudes (cognitions) are incongruent with behaviours, a dissonance occurs. As a result, we strive towards changing behaviour that isn’t reflective of the attitude, to reach our psychological need of consistency. Depending on what aspect is weighed more positively will reflect whether the change is in favour of the attitude or the behaviour. For example, if one might identify strongly with being environmentally friendly, but drives their car to work every day rather than using public transport or biking. If they feel more positively about pro-environmental behaviours, they might adjust theirs and take the bus to work every day. If they work far away from their job and prefer the convenience of driving, their environmental self-identity is not strong, and as a result their beliefs about pro-environmentalism will change to be congruent with the behaviour they have.


Annie identifies strongly with pro-environmentalism. Engaging in what behaviour exemplifies a cognitive dissonance with Annie's beliefs?

Catching the bus to work
Biking to work
Walking to work
Driving to work

Impact on emotion

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Now that a basic understanding of what environmental self-identity has been reached, it is time to delve into the way it can affect an individuals’ emotions. Theories of emotion will be briefly touched on to provide context for this. Specifically, environmental self-identity's impact on emotion will be analysed through the lens of cognitive appraisals and the norm-activation model.

What is emotion?

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Figure 5. Primary Emotions

There is no consensus on what emotion is, only an understanding that it is a mental state (Cabanac, 2002). Some definitions emphasise the role of cognition in emotion, others state it is somatic in nature, numerous describe it relative to universally felt emotions like joy, anger, excitement, and sadness (see Figure 5.). Theories bridge this gap, providing operational definitions for emotion. The James-Lange theory suggests that emotion is a product of bodily and visceral responses (Blackburn, 2016). For instance, in response to a stimulus you begin sweating and your heart starts racing, one could conclude that they’re experiencing fear. The Cannon bard theory proposes that rather the physiological arousal and the emotion are experienced at the same time (Colman, 2015). The Schachter-Singer theory states that we experience a physiological arousal, but then provide a reason for the arousal in order to understand it as an emotion (Dror, 2017, as cited in Schachter & Singer, 1962). Using the example from before, one could experience sweating and an increase in heart rate, but it could be due to going on a date (love) or seeing a snake (fear) or taking a test (anxiety); the situation dictates the emotion.

Lazarus' appraisal theory

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Providing explanation as to how environmental self-identity can impact an individuals’ emotion is cognitive appraisal theory. Emotion is embedded in cognitive activity, and to reach cognitive understanding of emotion, a process of appraisal is used. Appraisal is the way environmental stimuli are assessed relative to an individuals’ well-being (Scherer et al., 2001). Its basic model is a linear sequence: situation, appraisal, emotion. Lazarus (1990), extended on this idea, supposing that emotions are the product of evaluating the impact of an event on valued goals and motivations (Lowe & Bennet, 2003). Lazarus’ model includes primary and secondary appraisals. Primary appraisals are assessing how response to a situation is relevant and congruent to these goals and motivations. Secondary appraisal assess whether an individual has the relevant sources to cope with the situation. This model is more fluid than cognitive appraisal, as an individuals’ goals and motivations are not fixed and are subject to change, hence the individual undergoing continuous reappraisal (2001). It also acknowledges that the way others react to events can impact an individuals emotional response. These are called social appraisals (2001). Other appraisals also support environmental self-identity’s effect on emotion such as self/norm compatibility, which looks at how compatible the event is with an individuals’ self-concept (2001). If an individual identifies as pro-environment, their values and goals are driven toward being environmentally sensitive. Therefore, their emotions would be derivative of how environmentally-friendly an event is.

Norm-activation model

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The Norm Activation Model (NAM) can also be applied to explain the way environmental self-identity affects emotion. Introduced by Schwartz (1977), this theory is centred around altruism; sacrificing the well-being of the individual for the well-being of others. This theory is deeply enrooted in pro-environmentalism. Eco-friendly behaviour is the embodiment of partaking in behaviours that are less convenient for the individual (taking public transport, recycling, sustainable consumption) to yield a better result for the majority (Park & Ha, 2014). The extent to which an individual partakes in pro-social behaviour is mediated by their personal-norms. This being the moral obligation one has to performing a particular behaviour. Personal-norms are influenced by two factors. The first being awareness of consequences; understanding the impact of behaviour on the welfare of others (2014). The second being ascription of responsibility; the personal responsibility one takes for the negative consequences (2014). Personal norms, or self-expectations, are derivative of self-identity. This theory suggests that the way one feels about their own behaviour is dictated by their self-identity. If they have higher personal-norms relative to sustainability, they have greater inclination to behave in coherence to this.

How does this impact emotion? Venhoven (2016) found that voluntarily engaging in pro-environmental behaviours provides the individual with a sense of pride and achievement; it elicits a positive feeling. Onwezen (et al., 2013) found similar results; individuals with strong personal norms relative to the environment were more likely to experience guilt and shame, amongst other negative emotions, when events were not environmentally-friendly, and experienced pride, amongst other positive emotions when events adhered to personal norms. Rees (2015) found that confronting individuals with human-caused climate change impacted their emotions negatively. Individuals who experienced guilt elicited feelings of motivation towards changing behaviour. Not only are emotions the outcome of an event, but we are too capable of anticipating the emotions we are going to feel because of an event (2013). These anticipated emotions are generally overestimated, but regardless are helpful in anticipating future outcomes and thus inform the decision-making process. Environmental self-identity allows for a moral compass when it comes to making choices relative to the environment. Adhering to ones’[grammar?] identity elicits positive emotions and participating in environmentally unsustainable behaviour elicits negative emotions[factual?]. This regulation of emotion helps in motivating pro-environmental behaviour.


Mason cares deeply about the environment. He is sleep-deprived, needs a coffee, and left his keep cup at home. He needs the coffee take-away as he has class in 5 minutes. Mason's primary appraisal would conclude:

I really need to pay attention in this class, one take-away coffee cup wouldn't hurt.
Better wake up! No coffee for class without a keep cup.

Which action is not a behaviour of the norm-activation model?

Donating money to a charity
Caring about animal liberation
Volunteering at a homeless shelter
Recycling your garbage

Impact on behaviour

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The impact of environmental self-identity is more evident through an individuals[grammar?] behaviour. What behaviour is will be clarified to provide context, specifically relative to social learning theory and the theory of reasoned action. Motivation is the catalyst behind behaviour, so motivational theories of self-determination and planned behaviour will also be discussed. Lastly, social identity theory will be explored relative to how identity can impact behaviour.

What is behaviour?

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Much like emotion, behaviour is difficult to define. Described as the lack of adequate explanation for the central concept to psychology, Berger (2011) undertook a meta-analysis of definitions of behaviour, and concluded the most typified definition being observable physical and verbal movements. Descriptive Psychology has broken it down into 8 main parameters; Identity, Want, Know, Know-How, Performance, Achievement, Personal Characteristics and Significance (2011). Bandura’s social learning theory (1977) encompasses the definition of behaviour being observable. Behaviour is learned through observation and imitation of others’ actions in our environment, based on the positive or negative reinforcement of these actions. Theory of reasoned action was developed to explain the psychological/cognitive processes an individual has when making decisions (Paul et al., 2016). Specifically, it was geared toward using an individual’s belief system to predict action, relative to decisions that require critical thought. Its centred around intention to engage in behaviour, and in the context of the environment this could mean a plethora of things (recycling, shopping sustainably and organically, adopting vegetarianism, etc.). Azjen and Fishbein (1980, as cited in Paul et al., 2016) stated that intentions are the most important predictor of human behaviour. Therefore if an individual has strong environmental self-identity, their beliefs are highly impactful on their behaviours.

Self-determination theory

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Figure 6.Deci and Ryan's (1987) Self-Determination Theory.

Self-determination theory supports the role of identity as a motivator for behaviour. Introduced by Deci and Ryan (1987), this theory articulates that motivation to grow and change is regulated by an individual meeting three needs for optimal development; Relatedness, Competence and Autonomy (See Figure 6.). Relatedness refers to the extent to which an individual is in satisfying relationships with their social environment (Kaplan & Madjar, 2015). Competence refers to the individual realising their sense of effectiveness in fulfilling plans (2015). Autonomy is the individuals development of authentic goals, values and interests; free from coercion (2015). The more autonomously the individual is motivated, the more consistently behaviours in line with these needs will be actioned. A point made by Kaplan and Madjar (2015) is that pro-environmental behaviours are foremost extrinsic. Internalising beliefs and values relative to pro-environmental behaviour (in other words developing environmental self-identity) creates self-determined motivation to behave sustainably (2015). A study by de Groot and Steg (2010) found that the more biospherically and altruistically oriented an individual is, the more self-determined they were to act environmentally friendly. This supports the impact strong identity has on motivating pro-environmental behaviour.

Theory of planned behaviour

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The theory of planned behaviour was built from the expectancy-value theory. Expectancies are the beliefs one holds about their ability to complete a task based on previous experience with the task (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Values are relative to the tasks attractiveness, relevant to the value of other possible tasks (2000). The overarching construct that reaches from this theory to the theory of planned behaviour is how values and beliefs predict motivation performance (2000). Planned behaviour theory extents on the previously mentioned theory of reasoned action. This theory is comprised of three beliefs; behavioural, subjective norms, and behavioural-control, that encompass the behaviours one chooses to perform (Tölkes & Butzmann, 2018). Behavioural beliefs are those informed by the outcomes and evaluation of behaviour (2018). Subjective norms being the norms of the groups the individual belongs to, and the pressure to comply with said norms (2018). Perceived behavioural control are the constraints that may deter an individual from performing a behaviour; perhaps they think the behaviour is too difficult for them to achieve (2018). Essentially, motivation and intention to perform behaviours are guided by ones[grammar?] beliefs. If an individual identifies strongly with pro-environmental beliefs, this theory states that their behaviour would align with these beliefs.

Social identity theory

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A significant aspect of environmental self-identity is an individuals[grammar?] self-concept. Social-identity is the part of one’s self-concept which is informed by the group memberships that individual has. Thus, if an individual identifies as pro-environmental then this in part would be due to the influence and motivation of others (Fritsche et al., 2018). Social-identity theory is essentially this; ones’[grammar?] identity relative to their group memberships. Brieger (2018) found that in order to both foster environmental concern and motivate behaviour change relative to this, social identity is essential. It calls upon social learning theory, as witnessing others with whom you identify performing behaviours which are then reinforced by a group only motivates own behaviour to concur (for example a friend turning down a plastic straw at a café and using a metal straw they brought from home; the behaviour then being praised by your other friends for not contributing to landfill). The more intensely an individual identifies with a group, the greater the effect of ingroup norms on behaviour (Fielding & Hornsey, 2016). Examples of pro-environmental behaviours social-identity can influence include recycling, towel-reuse in hotels, and sustainable consumption (2016). This encapsulates how environmental self-identity, through the social domain, can impact ones[grammar?] behaviour[factual?].


Bandura's social learning theory maintains that behaviour is;


In self-determination theory, autonomy implies;

The individual's values and beliefs have been formed on their own
The individual's values and beliefs have been formed through their social identity

Jessie is the only one out of her neighbours who doesn't recycle their garbage. Relative to social-identity theory, seeing her neighbours recycle... :

Will have no impact on Jessie's recycling habits
Will motivate Jessie to recycle her own garbage
Will change Jessie's beliefs about recycling
Will remind Jessie to take her bins out every fortnight


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Environmental self-identity is the embodiment of ones[grammar?] beliefs, morals and values tied together with pro-environmental attitudes. Through the analysis of psychological theory and peer-reviewed research, the impact of this identity on engagement in pro-environmental behaviours has immense support. Specifically, through the analysis of cognitive appraisals, the norm-activation model, self-determination theory, the theory of planned behaviour and social identity theory, amongst others, it is known that environmental-self identity can be a catalyst for behaviour change.

Although the impacts of climate change seem too overwhelming to deal with on a personal level, and by nature of being a collectively induced phenomenon, changes made by the individual are impactful; both by way of the individual reducing their impact and motivating those around them to follow suit. As Greta Thunberg said in her speech at the climate extinction protest in London, 2019, we’ve chosen our path and others will follow. These theories of behaviour motivation and emotion ring true to this; behaviours of one individual can impact those of others. Whether it be through experiencing pride after using a keep cup for your morning coffee, or knowing that the reason your neighbour recycles their plastic because you do, having a strong environmental self-identity has the ability to impact the emotion and behaviour of not only the individual, but all those in which they come in contact.

See also

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