Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Goal-framing theory and pro-environmental behaviour

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Goal-framing theory and pro-environmental behaviour:
What is the role of GFT in PEB?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Climate change is a threat to the future of life on our planet.

The world is experiencing climate change-induced disasters, such as floods, bushfires, and droughts more frequently and with greater intensity than ever before (see Figure 1). Humans play an essential role in influencing the climate and the earth’s temperature by engaging in behaviours such as dumping waste, cutting down forests, or burning fossil fuels. Engaging in pro-environmental behaviour (PEB) is one of the most important ways to counteract and reduce the rapid environmental changes attributable to humans, to slow down climate change and to save our planet.

Goal-framing theory (GFT) is a useful framework for understanding the effect of motivation and goals on the production of PEB and proposes that an individual’s engagement in PEB is guided by three kinds of goal frames, the gain goal frame, hedonic goal frame and the normative goal frame (Yang et al., 2020). This book chapter focuses on what role GFT plays in PEB and how it can be used to increase an individual’s engagement with the environment.

Focus questions:

  • What is the goal-framing theory?
  • What is pro-environmental behaviour?
  • What is the role of GFT in PEB?
  • How can GFT be used to increase PEB?

Goal-framing theory[edit | edit source]

GFT is mostly influenced by cognitive social psychology and was first proposed by Lindenberg and Steg (2007) who suggested that individuals are guided by goals, which play a key role in determining behaviours. The central idea of this theoretical framework is that goals direct what people attend to, what knowledge and attitudes become cognitively accessible, how to evaluate situations, and what behaviours to produce (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007).

GFT was developed to systematically understand the effect of motivation on the production of PEB and acknowledges these kinds of behaviours result from multiple goal motivations (Yang et al., 2020; Steg & Vlek, 2009). Furthermore, it suggests that three types of overarching goal frames govern behaviour: hedonic goal frames, normative goal frames, and gain goal frames (Steg et al., 2014).

What is a goal?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Setting goals boosts motivation and determines what we direct our attention to.

A goal is an “aim that one is committed to that serves as a guide for future behaviour” and represents a desired result an individual plans to accomplish (Ellliot & Murrayama, 2008, p. 614). People have many kinds of goals, such as career goals, relationship goals, life goals, or educational goals. According to Lindenberg and Steg (2013), goals are flexible, change in relation to situational cues and can influence an individual to be selective to inputs and prepared to process them.

Furthermore, goals affect what people attend to, what information they are sensitive to, which information they neglect and what they expect of others around them (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). For example, a person who strives to achieve the goal of becoming a professional athlete would direct their attention towards information about sport and engage in athletic activities (see Figure 2).

What is a goal frame?[edit | edit source]

Lindenberg and Steg (2007) divided a variety of subgoals into three overarching dimensions, namely goal frames. The dominant goal, which is the strongest and focal in a particular situation, is the goal frame and comprises and activates a number of sub-goals (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007). Although behaviour is mostly influenced from multiple goals, it is very likely that one goal will dominate the framing process and create the goal frame (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007).

Compared to other goals, the goal frame is given the higher weight and has the greatest influence on cognitive and motivational processes, while the other goals in the background either increase or decrease the strength of the goal frame (Steg & Vlek, 2009). According to GFT, each goal frame corresponds to a specific behavioural motivation and creates selective sensitivity to specific inputs (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013).

Types of goal frames[edit | edit source]

According to GFT, three types of goal frames have evolved for human beings and govern behaviour: the hedonic goal frame, normative goal frame, and the gain goal frame (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). Each goal frame organises cognitions and evaluations in an interchangeable way and influences what an individual perceives and how one will act (Steg & Vlek, 2009).

Hedonic goal frame[edit | edit source]

The first type of goal frame is the hedonic goal frame. A hedonic goal frame activates sub-goals related to the improvement of one’s feelings in a particular situation, such as the avoidance of effort or painful feelings, pleasure seeking, looking for excitement, or seeking direct improvement of one’s self-esteem (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013; Steg et al., 2007). People in a hedonic goal frame are specifically sensitive to opportunities that increase their pleasure or satisfy their needs, and consider their goals achieved when the way they feel improved (Steg et al., 2007).

Gain goal frame[edit | edit source]

The second type of goal frame, according to GFT, is the gain goal frame. A gain goal frame activates sub-goals that focus on the protection, improvement, and efficiency of one’s resources (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007). Sub-goals associated with this goal frame include saving money, increasing one’s income, and protecting one’s financial security (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007). Furthermore, individuals in a gain goal frame show an enhanced sensitivity towards changes in one’s personal resources, such as money and status, and exhibit particular behaviours, such as acting strategically, making plans, as well as investing in one’s own future self (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013).

Normative goal frame[edit | edit source]

The third and last goal frame is the normative goal frame. A normative goal frame activates sub-goals associated with the appropriateness of one’s actions, including behaving in the right way, demonstrating exemplary behaviour, or contributing to a clean environment (Steg et al., 2014). Consequently, individuals in a normative goal frame show an enhanced sensitivity towards what one is ought to do, pay attention to public interests and are driven by altruistic motivations, following social expectations and moral standards (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007). Table 1.

Summary of the Goal Frames with their Focus and Subgoals

Goal frame Focus Subgoals
Hedonic goal frame Improvement of feelings in a particular situation Avoidance of effort and painful feelings, improvement in self-esteem, pleasure, excitement, need satisfaction
Gain goal frame Protection, improvement, and efficiency of resources Saving money, increasing income, protecting financial security
Normative goal frame Appropriateness of actions Demonstrating exemplary behaviour, behaving in the right way, contributing to a clean environment

What is pro-environmental behaviour?[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Environmental pollution is one of the biggest challenges our planet has to face, but the engagement in pro-environmental behaviours can promote environmental quality and sustainability.

The world is facing a variety of environmental problems such as global warming, pollution, water shortages, and loss of biodiversity (Liobikiene & Minelgaite, 2021) (see Figure 3). Most of the environmental problems are rooted in human behaviours, for example through activities that lead to the emission of greenhouse gases which warm the earth’s atmosphere and primarily influence the current trend in climate change (Swim et al., 2011; Steg & Vlek, 2009).

The detrimental effects of our behaviour on the environment and our planet emphasise the need for humans to become active and change relevant behaviours to promote environmental quality and sustainability. Those kinds of behaviours, also known as PEBs, primarily focus on changes in one’s personal lifestyle, such as the decrease of one’s use of resources and energy, the change of one’s consumer behaviour, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to sustain the environment (Steg et al., 2014).

There are a variety of different ways to engage in PEB and different kinds of changes one can implement in one’s everyday life to lessen the impact on the environment. Examples of PEB include using energy-efficient appliances, reducing one's amount of gas, water, and electricity use, recycling one’s waste, buying organic and local products or using environmentally friendly transport, such as walking, cycling, or public transport (Holz-Rau & Schreiner, 2019; Liobikiene & Minelgaite, 2021).

What is the role of GFT in PEB?[edit | edit source]

According to GFT, the goal frames motivate and determine which behaviours to produce and which behavioural motivation to correspond to and can therefore be identified as important indicators for the engagement in PEB (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). The three goal frames influence PEB in different ways.

Effects of a hedonic goal frame on PEB[edit | edit source]

Whether people in a hedonic goal frame engage in PEB depends on whether the behaviours and the associated feelings are perceived as enjoyable and pleasurable (Steg et al., 2014). Research has found that there are primarily two ways in which a hedonic goal frame influences PEB (Liobikiene et al., 2020; Steg et al., 2014). Firstly, individuals in a hedonic goal frame are more likely to engage in PEB because the engagement increases feelings of pleasure and happiness, and second, individuals in a hedonic goal frame are less likely to engage in PEB as those kinds of behaviours are associated with negative feelings and increased effort (Liobikiene et al., 2020; Steg et al., 2014). In support of the former, a recent study has found that people, guided by hedonic goals, are more likely to purchase green products and behave environmentally friendly when these kinds of behaviours create positive feelings (Liobikiene et al., 2020). Consequently, individuals endorse environmental values and engage in PEB when these behaviours provoke the experience of internal fulfilment and pleasure (Chakraborty et al., 2017). On the other hand, and in support of the latter, several studies have provided evidence for a negative relationship between a hedonic goal frame and PEB, in which people guided by hedonic goals were less likely to behave environmentally friendly (Tang et al., 2020). When people in a hedonic goal frame put the focus on feelings of pleasure and the avoidance of effort, it has been found that they are less likely to engage in recycling behaviour (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007). Furthermore, Steg et al. (2014) have found that hedonic goals cause individuals to consume a high amount of energy or water, by engaging in pleasurable activities such as watching television, doing online shopping, or taking long baths on a regular basis. Overall, hedonic goals determine whether individuals engage in PEB in the way of evaluating one’s associated feelings and effort in regard to the specific behaviours. Consequently, individuals in a hedonic goal frame act pro-environmentally when it is convenient and pleasurable to do so.

Yes check.svg

Case example:

Sarah is coming home from a long day at work. After making herself comfortable on the couch, she notices seven empty plastic bottles sitting on the table. The sight of these bottles creates in Sarah a feeling of dirtiness, so she decides to get rid of them. Walking to the next recycling facility seems like a big effort, which Sarah does not want to exert. So, she puts the plastic bottles in her organics bin, which requires no big effort and makes her feel better and cleaner right away. The bottles are out of sight and Sarah can finally continue to watch her new TV show.

Effects of a gain goal frame on PEB[edit | edit source]

Whether people in a gain goal frame act pro-environmentally is determined by the costs and benefits associated with the engagement in PEB. Similar to the hedonic goal frame, research has found a positive as well as a negative association between gain goals and PEB (Chakraborty et al., 2017; Tang et al., 2020). On one hand, it has been found that individuals in a gain goal frame are more likely to adopt PEB when they perceive the consequences as materially beneficial and are associated with an improvement of one’s income or status (Chakraborty et al., 2017). It has been emphasised that consumers in a gain goal frame see green product consumption as an instrument for enhancing one’s self-concept and image (Tang et al., 2020). Furthermore, a gain goal frame has been found to contribute to energy and water saving behaviour, resulting from the aim to reduce associated costs and save money (Liobikine & Minelgaite, 2021). On the other hand, people in a gain goal frame have been found to lack sustainable attitudes and intentions as well as to only engage in PEB as long as it is profitable and that they are likely to stop if it is too costly (Steg et al., 2014; Tang et al., 2020). For example, research revealed that individuals in a gain goal frame restrain from buying green products as they are generally costlier and therefore make them sacrifice their resources (Steg & Vlek, 2009). It has been found that recycling behaviour decreased when the primary consideration was focused on economic rather than on environmental criteria (Chakraborty et al., 2017). Altogether, whether an individual in a gain goal frame engages in PEB depends on the perceived costs and benefits associated with the behaviours and the protection and enhancement of one’s resources and status. Consequently, individuals in a gain goal frame engage in PEB when it saves money and increases one’s income or reputation.

Yes check.svg Case example:

Tom is on his way to the supermarket to do his weekly grocery shopping. In the supermarket, he must decide whether to buy organic fruits and vegetables or nonorganic fruits and vegetables, which are packed in plastic and are environmentally harmful. As Tom wants to save money, he chooses the nonorganic products because they are cheaper.

Effects of a normative goal frame on PEB[edit | edit source]

As normative goals guide an individual to focus on the appropriateness of one’s actions and increases the sensitivity towards what one is ought to do, people in a normative goal frame engage in PEB because protecting the environment is the right thing to do (Steg et al., 2014). Individuals who are primarily guided by normative goals experience a heightened sense of personal responsibility and care towards the environment and consequently pay attention to environmental problems, take pro-environmental actions, and are more likely to comply with green social norms, such as environmental morality and environmental justice (Yang et al., 2020). It has been found that a normative goal frame is positively related to green consumption behaviour and the awareness of one’s consumption consequences on the environment (Tang et al., 2020). This finding supports previous research which found normative considerations promote moral actions and environmental values, resulting in enhanced PEB (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). For instance, a study by Liobikiene and Juknys (2016) found that people in a normative goal frame demonstrated increased waste recycling, green purchasing behaviour, and a lower energy consumption. Normative goals have been stated to be the most important elements in seeking PEB and, when normative goals are focal, individuals engage in PEB, disregarding the costs and effort these behaviours may involve (Steg et al., 2014). Consequently, the normative goal frame has been argued to play the most important role in influencing PEB among the three goal frames and to provide the strongest and most stable impact on these kinds of behaviours (Yang et al., 2020). In sum, the normative goal frame represents the strongest influence on the engagement in PEB and promotes an individual to act pro-environmentally because protecting the environment is the right thing to do.

Yes check.svg Case example:

Michelle has been engaging in a variety of PEBs for a long time now and feels like contributing to a clean environment is the right thing to do. She sold her car two years ago and now always riding her bike to work and takes public transport for further destinations. She also takes part in weekly environmental events, where she tries to convince other people around her to behave environmentally friendly because of “our responsibility to protect the environment”.

How can GFT be used to increase PEB?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. The influence of the three goal frames on pro-environmental behaviour.

Knowing what influences the three different goal frames have on acting pro-environmentally can be used to promote and support the engagement in PEB in a variety of ways (see Figure 4). The most effective way to increase PEB is to target and strengthen normative goals, which have been shown to have the strongest influence on an individual’s PEB (Steg et al., 2014). Normative goals can be strengthened by endorsing and activating environmental values and providing pro-environmental situational or contextual cues in which decisions are made (Steg et al., 2014). Furthermore, the engagement in PEB can be strengthened by reducing the barriers of hedonic and gain goal frames to act pro-environmentally (Steg et al., 2014). This can be achieved by making environmentally harmful behaviours less pleasurable, for example by implementing speed bumps or higher fines for speeding, or making PEB convenient and profitable, for example by increasing the proximity of trash cans or decreasing the price of organic products (Chakraborty et al., 2017). Finally, PEB can be increased by linking hedonic and gain goals to normative goals and making them compatible with one another (Liobikiene & Minelgaite, 2021; Steg et al., 2014). Each of the three goal frames can motivate an individual to engage in PEB and to make pro-environmental choices (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). Furthermore, research findings suggest that different kinds of pro-environmental activities can fulfill different kinds of goal frames (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). As a result, PEB can activate a normative goal frame because the behaviour is the appropriate thing to do, but also a gain goal frame because it creates material benefit and a hedonic goal frame because it makes one feel good (Liobikiene & Minelgaite, 2021). When the three goal frames become compatible with one another and acting pro-environmentally becomes associated with decreased costs and increased pleasure, the normative goal frame is supported by hedonic and gain goals, which leads to an increase in the willingness to act environmentally friendly (Steg & Vlek, 2009). Research has also revealed that this compatibility between the three goal frames is associated with an improvement of an individual’s feelings and the development of a positive self-concept (Steg et al., 2014). Overall, every goal frame can motivate an individual to engage in PEB and the engagement in PEB can be increased by strengthening normative goals, reducing the barriers of hedonic and gain goal goals in regard to acting pro-environmentally, and by increasing the compatibility of hedonic and gain goals with normative goals.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Test your knowledge with this short quiz on some of the concepts presented in this book chapter:

1 Examples of pro-environmental behaviours include:

Waste recycling
Using the car daily to get to work and back
Purchasing organic and locally produced products

2 Which goal frame represents the strongest influence on an individual’s engagement in pro-environmental behaviour:

Gain goal frame
Normative goal frame
Hedonic goal frame

3 Every individual, regardless of their goal frame, can fulfill their goals by engaging in pro-environmental behaviour:


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

GFT embeds the central idea that goals direct what people attend to, what behaviours to produce, and plays an important role in PEB. The three goal frames proposed by the theoretical framework, the hedonic goal frame, the gain goal frame, and the normative goal frame, can determine and guide PEB and the motivations for engaging in these kinds of behaviours. The hedonic goal frame is concerned with the improvement of one's feelings, while the gain goal frame is focusing on the protection and enhancement of one's resources, and the normative goal frame on the appropriateness of one's actions. In regard to PEB, the normative goal frame represents the strongest predictor and influence for acting pro-environmentally. Consequently, an increase in pro-environmental actions can be achieved by strengthening normative goals, but also by reducing barriers of gain and hedonic goals and by increasing the compatibility of hedonic and gain goals with normative goals. Every single person, regardless of their goal frame, can fulfill their goals by contributing to the sustainability of our environment and to ensure the future of our planet. Like Greta Thunberg once said “ Humanity is now standing at a crossroads - We must decide which path we want to take, we are the ones making a difference” (Davies, 2019, p.1).

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Chakraborty, A., Singh, M. P., & Roy, M. (2017). A study of goal frames shaping pro-environmental behaviour in university students. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18(7) 1291-1310.

Davies, P. (2019). 29 of Greta Thunberg’s best quotes. Curious Earth.

Elliot, A. J., & Murayama, K. (2008). On the measurement of achievement goals: Critique, illustration, and application. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(3), 613–628.

Holz-Rau, C., & Scheiner, J. (2019). Land-use and transport planning–A field of complex cause-impact relationships. Thoughts on transport growth, greenhouse gas emissions and the built environment. Transport Policy, 74, 127-137.

IPCC. (2013). Summary for policymakers (Report No. 5). Cambridge University Press.

Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2007). Normative, gain and hedonic goal frames guiding environmental behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 63(1), 117-137.

Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2013). Goal-framing theory and norm-guided environmental behavior. In C.M. van Trijp (Ed.), Encouraging sustainable behavior (pp.37-42). Taylor & Francis.

Liobikienė, G., & Juknys, R. (2016). The role of values, environmental risk perception, awareness of consequences, and willingness to assume responsibility for environmentally-friendly behaviour: The Lithuanian case. Journal of Cleaner Production, 112, 3413-3422.

Liobikienė, G., Liobikas, J., Brizga, J., & Juknys, R. (2020). Materialistic values impact on pro-environmental behavior: The case of transition country as Lithuania. Journal of Cleaner Production, 244, 118859.

Liobikienė, G., & Minelgaitė, A. (2021). Energy and resource-saving behaviours in European Union countries: The Campbell paradigm and goal framing theory approaches. Science of The Total Environment, 750, 141745.

Steg, L., Bolderdijk, J. W., Keizer, K., & Perlaviciute, G. (2014). An integrated framework for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 38, 104-115.

Steg, L., & Vlek, C. (2009). Encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: An integrative review and research agenda. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(3), 309-317.

Swim, J. K., Clayton, S., & Howard, G. S. (2011). Human behavioral contributions to climate change: Psychological and contextual drivers. American Psychologist, 66(4), 251.

Tang, Y., Chen, S., & Yuan, Z. (2020). The effects of hedonic, gain, and normative motives on sustainable consumption: Multiple mediating evidence from China. Sustainable Development, 28(4), 741-750.

Yang, X., Chen, S. C., & Zhang, L. (2020). Promoting sustainable development: A research on residents' green purchasing behavior from a perspective of the goal‐framing theory. Sustainable Development, 28(5), 1208-1219.

External links[edit | edit source]