Maybe you are familiar with this breed of logic: You’ve just had a really good workout. You ran four miles on the treadmill. So you go home and think to yourself, “I can eat a little more at dinner tonight.” And you do. Heck, you even have dessert.
Or, maybe you’re about to start a new exercise routine — following up on a pledge to yourself, a resolution. But that’s tomorrow. So tonight, you eat way more than you know you should — because after all, you plan to be good in the very near future.
These ideas — the notion that one good health-related behavior justifies or offsets a bad one — are called “compensatory health beliefs” in the research literature. And they appear to be common — and often, pernicious. Studies have linked this mode of thinking to adolescents having a harder time quitting smoking, people being less likely to get a flu shot and, of course, breaking diets.
This idea that we can “justify” a little bad with an intended good and thereby balance the scales — or that after doing something bad, we can cleanse our sins with something good — seems to be a very human thing. It’s classic rationalization and self-justification. It lessens cognitive dissonance, making us feel better.
But it also has consequences, which is why it’s worth asking: Does this kind of thinking also happen in reference to the environment and energy use? Do people worry less about leaving the lights on because they drive a hybrid?
If so, the implications could be large. In particular, such thinking, if widespread, could introduce an unwanted “rebound” effect into growing initiatives to get people to use less energy or water or to adopt other green behaviors, making them less effective overall. Simply put, on a population scale, by loudly promoting and adopting one clean energy behavior or activity we might actually offset and undermine others.
We don’t know the extent to which this actually happens. But in a recent study in the journal Environment and Behavior, a group of researchers at Derby and Sheffield universities in the UK began an effort to change that. They set out to try to measure what they called “compensatory green beliefs” and how they affect behaviors. Their results suggested that these beliefs certainly might be something to worry about.
The research is admittedly tentative, and does not translate easily to the U.S. context. That’s because the study used some questionnaire items that seem unlikely to resonate with Americans — for instance, “You do not need to worry about which country your food comes from if you use energy-efficient appliances in the home.” Worrying about the country one’s food comes from, and how much energy it takes to get it to us, hasn’t really taken hold in this country, so the result of this question in the the UK is hard to apply here.
Nonetheless, using a questionnaire with 16 questions — such as “Recycling compensates for driving a car,” “It is okay to leave the lights on if you use low-energy light bulbs” and “Not driving a car compensates for flying on holiday” — the researchers found that the average amount of agreement overall was roughly eight percent in a group of 770 British research subjects. The most popular item – drawing 16.2 percent agreement – was “Not driving a car compensates for flying on holiday.”
This might seem like a low level of endorsement overall, but the authors noted that these numbers may underrepresent how much people truly engage in such reasoning.
The reason is that concerns about “social desirability” — what people will think of you if you give a particular answer to certain types of questions– may have suppressed stronger responses in this case. Compensatory beliefs are, after all, a form of private rationalization that might not go over as well if aired publicly, so people may feel hesitant even to embrace them in a survey.
What’s more, the study also found statistical relationships between endorsing compensatory beliefs and not only being less environmentally conscious, but also engaging in fewer green behaviors, such as driving a more fuel-efficient car. Indeed, endorsement of these compensatory beliefs also showed a link with being a skeptic of climate change and being less concerned about the problem.
“At a population level, endorsement of [compensatory green beliefs] could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of interventions and initiatives intended to, for example, reduce energy consumption and increase more sustainable practices,” the authors conclude.
Once again, this is UK-based research. If anything, overall environmental consciousness appears lower in the United States, which could cut both ways. It might promote more compensatory green beliefs, making them easier to justify. But it might also mean that people don’t even feel bad to begin with about behaviors that are environmentally unfriendly. So they might feel no need to justify or compensate for them.
Nonetheless, we’re moving toward greater awareness of clean energy and energy savings in the United States, which means that opportunities for justifying and rationalizing may also be growing. So perhaps a clear rebuttal to compensatory green thinking is in order already (in case it wasn’t already apparent).
This style of thinking might seem trivial and all too human. But think of what would happen if everybody thought they could trade off one environmental plus for one environmental negative — that one green “A” offsets one “F” — and followed through on that logic. It’s hard to see how the consequence could be anything other than this — a world that, overall, consumes more energy and suffers more environmental consequences.
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