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 experiences climate changed 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) therefore 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 aimed to understand the effect of motivation on the production of PEB and proposes that an individual’s engagement in PEB is guided by three goal frames, gain goal frames, hedonic goal frames and normative goal frames (Yang et al., 2020). This book chapter focuses on what role GFT plays in PEB and how it can be used to increase PEB.

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]

Goal-framing theory is mostly influenced by cognitive social psychology and has been first proposed by Lindenberg and Steg (2007), who suggest that individuals are guided by goals and 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).

The goal-framing theory was developed to systematically understand the effect of motivation on the production of pro-environmental behaviour and acknowledges that 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 behavior” and represents a desired result an individual plans to accomplish (Ellliot & Murrayama, 2008, p. 614). People have many different kinds of goals, such as career goals, relationship goals, life goals, or educational goals. A student may have the goal to achieve a high mark in an exam, a traveller to reach one’s destination within one day or an athlete to run ten miles in a competition. According to Lindernberg and Steg (2013) goals are flexible and change in relation to situational cues and can influence an individual to be both 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 (Linderberg & Steg, 2013). For example, a person who strives to achieve the goal of becoming a professional athlete would direct his attention to information about sport, engage in sport activities and would probably follow the career path of other professional athletes (see Figure 2).

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

Lindenberg and Steg (2007) divided a variety of sub-goals 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 subgoals (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007). Behaviour is mostly influenced from multiple goals, but it is very likely that one goal will dominate the framing process (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 two overarching goals in the background either increase or decrease of the strength of the focal goal, the goal frame (Steg & Vlek, 2009). According to the goal-framing theory, each goal frame corresponds to a specific behavioural motivation and create selective sensitivity to specific inputs (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013; Yang et al., 2020).

Types of goal-frames[edit | edit source]

As previously mentioned, three types of goal frames seem to have evolved for human beings and govern behaviour, according to the goal-framing theory: The hedonic goal frame, normative goal frame, and gain goal frame (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). Each of the goal frames organises cognitions and evaluations in an interchangeable way, selectively activate learned components, and influence 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 one or more subgoals to improve one’s feelings in a particular situation (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013). This goal-frame is associated with behaviours like avoidance of effort and painful feelings, pleasure seeking, looking for excitement, or seeking direct improvement in self-esteem (Steg et al., 2007). People in a hedonic goal frame consider their goal achieved when the way they feel improved and are specifically sensitive to opportunities that increase their pleasure, satisfy their needs, and affect their mood (Steg et al., 2007).

Gain goal-frame[edit | edit source]

The second type of goal frame, according to the goal-framing theory, is the gain goal frame. A gain goal frame activates one or more subgoals that focus on the protection and the improvement of one’s resources or one’s efficiency of resources (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007). Subgoals 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 are exhibiting particular behaviours, such as acting strategically, making plans, as well as investing in one’s own future self and show an enhanced sensitivity towards changes in one’s personal resources, such as money and status (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013; Steg et al., 2014).

Normative goal-frame[edit | edit source]

The third and last goal frame is the normative goal frame. A normative goal frame activates all kinds of subgoals associated with 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 they think they are ought to do, pay attention to public interests and are driven by altruistic motivations, following social expectations and moral standards (Yang et al., 2020; Lindenberg & Steg, 2007).

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 of resources 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

Table 1. Summary of the goal frames with their focus and subgoals.

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

The world is facing a variety of environmental problems such as global warming, pollution, water shortages, or 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 pro-environmental behaviours, 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).

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.

Types of PEB[edit | edit source]

There are a variety of different ways to engage in pro-environmental behaviour and different kinds of changes one can implement in one’s everyday life to lessen one’s impact on the environment (see Table 1). Example of pro-environmental behaviour within one’s home and garden could include choosing energy-efficient appliances and Green Power electricity, lowering the shades on hot days to reduce the use of air-conditioning, using rechargeable batteries, letting clothes dry naturally, and reducing the amount of gas, water and electricity one uses in general (WWF, 2020). Moreover, recycling behaviour has also been shown to be an attractive behaviour to protect the environment, which contributes to a decrease in a total waste production (Pierini et al., 2021; Mtutu & Thondhlana, 2016). In regard to one’s consumer behaviour pro-environmental behaviours mainly focus on green purchase, which involves buying organic and locally produced food, choosing products that have less packaging, and contributing to resource-saving (Liobikiene & Minelgaite, 2021; WWF, 2020). Another type of pro-environmental behaviour, which can be implemented in one’s personal life, is environmentally friendly transport usage, which includes using cars that are more fuel efficient or shifting to different travel modes, such as walking, cycling or the use of public transport (Holz-Rau & Schreiner, 2019).

Determinants of PEB[edit | edit source]

There are a range of situational, demographic and individual determinants which may act as enablers or barriers for pro-environmental behaviours and have a strong influence on an individual’s engagement with the environment.

Situational and demographic determinants[edit | edit source]

Situational and demographic determinants influence an individual’s opportunity to engage in pro-environmental behaviour. Research has shown that infrastructure provision, convenience, and distance play an important role in the engagement of pro-environmental behaviour, particularly in environmentally friendly transport usage (Mtutu & Thondhlana, 2016). Furthermore, individuals with a higher income and a higher level of education have been found to be more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours (Melo et al., 2018; Mtutu & Thondhlana, 2016). In addition, pro-environmental behaviour seems to be positively correlated to an individual’s age, with research findings showing that as people grow older their pro-environmental behaviour increases (Melo et al., 2018).

Individual determinants[edit | edit source]

Next to situational and demographic factors, it is also important to consider the individual determinants which influence a person’s pro-environmental behaviours. The engagement in pro-environmental behaviours is primarily guided by personal cost-benefit analyses Mtutu & Thondala, 2016).  Research has found that people with a stronger knowledge and awareness of the negative consequences of unsustainable behaviour and the harmful effects on the environment are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours (Mtutu & Thondhlana, 2016). Moreover, one’s personal values, morals and norms present a large influence on engaging in pro-environmental behaviour as they guide an individual’s view of the world (Mtutu & Thondhlana, 2016). As previously mentioned, goals also play a key role in pro-environmental behaviour and are going to be considered in detail in the next section of this book chapter which is focusing on the role of goal-framing theory on pro-environmental behaviour (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013).

Pro-environmental behaviour Percentage of Australian respondents engaging in behaviour for environmental reasons Mostly for other reasons
I usually walk/ cycle/ carpool/ take public transport 14% 44.4%
Where possible, I buy products that are made locally 44.1% 39.2%
I have taken part in an environmental event (e.g. Earth Hour) 34% -
I have reduced the amount of gas and/or electricity I use 49.8% 42%
I am on Green Power electricity 25.1% 7.5%
I have been a member of an environmental group or movement 5.7% -
I have reduced the amount of water I use around the house and garden 64.1% 29.3%

Table 2. Percentage of Australian respondents engaging in pro-environmental behaviours (Leviston, 2013, p. 73).

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

Figure 3. The influence of the three goal frames on pro-environmental behaviour
  • According to goal-framing theory, the goal-frame of an individual motivates and determines which behaviours to produce and to which behavioural motivation to correspond (Lindenberg & Steg, 2013)
  • The three goal-frames influence pro-environmental behaviour in different ways (see Figure 3)

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

  • People in a hedonic goal-frame engage in pro-environmental behaviour when it is enjoyable (Steg et al., 2014)
  • Individuals guided by hedonic goals put the focus on feelings of pleasure and excitement and the avoidance of effort and are therefore, less likely to engage in recycling behaviour (Lindenberg & Steg, 2007)
  • A recent study has found that individuals in a hedonic goal-frame are more likely to purchase green products and has stated that people with hedonic goals behave environmentally friendly, when they perceive that behaviour as enjoyable (Liobikiene et al., 2020)
  • Critical views include that individuals in a hedonic goal-frame only act pro-environmentally when it is convenient and pleasurable to do so (Steg et al., 2014)
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 doesn’t want to exert. So she puts the plastic bottles in her organics bin, which is no 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 show.

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

  • People in a gain goal-frame engage in pro-environmental behaviour when it saves money or increases one's income (Steg et al., 2014)
  • Individuals guided by gain goals are motivated to behave environmentally friendly because of a material benefit (Liobikiene et al., 2020)
  • Critical views include that people in a gain goal-frame only act pro-environmentally as long as it is profitable and that they are likely to refrain from pro-environmental behaviour when it is too costly (Steg et al., 2014)
Yes check.svg

Case example:

Tom is on his way to the supermarket to do his weekly grocery shopping. In the supermarket he has to 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 fruits and vegetables because they are cheaper.

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

  • People in a normative goal-frame engage in pro-environmental behaviour because they think protecting the environment is the right thing to do (Steg et al., 2014)
  • Individuals primarily guided by normative goals pay attention to environmental problems and take pro-environmental actions to fulfill their responsibility (Yang et al., 2020)
  • Individuals in a normative goal-frame are more likely to comply with green social norms such as environmental morality and environmental justice (Yang et al., 2020)
  • The normative goal-frame has been shown to have the strongest impact on pro-environmental behaviour among the three goal-frames (Yang et al., 2020)
Yes check.svg

Case example:

Michelle has been engaging in a variety of pro-environmental behaviours 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 is 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]

  • Strengthening normative goals (Steg et al., 2014)
  • Increase the compatibility of hedonic and gain goals with normative goals (Steg et al., 2014)
  • Research findings suggest that various pro-environmental activities can fulfill different kinds of goal-frames. They can activate normative goal-frames because it is the right thing to do, but also hedonic and gain goal-frames because it makes individuals feel good about themselves and is related to material benefit (Liobikiene & Minelgaite, 2021)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

  • Summarise key points
  • Take home message 1: Goal-framing theory plays an important role in pro-environmental behaviour and can influence the way individuals engage with the environment
  • Take home message 2: Goal-frames can determine and guide pro-environmental behaviours and the motivations for engaging in these types of behaviours
  • Take home message 3: Every individual, regardless of their goal-frame, can fulfill their goals by engaging in pro-environmental behaviour

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Quiz which assesses the information presented in the book chapter:

Quiz question 1:


2 Quiz question 2:


3 Quiz question 3:


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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.

Joshi, Y., & Rahman, Z. (2015). Factors affecting green purchase behaviour and future research directions. International Strategic Management Review, 3(1-2), 128-143.

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., 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.

Melo, P. C., Ge, J., Craig, T., Brewer, M. J., & Thronicker, I. (2018). Does work-life balance affect pro-environmental behaviour? Evidence for the UK using longitudinal microdata. Ecological Economics, 145, 170-181.

Mtutu, P., & Thondhlana, G. (2016). Encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: Energy use and recycling at Rhodes University, South Africa. Habitat International, 53, 142-150.

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.

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]