The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship

Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú, and Mark van Vugt
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing
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Executive Summary
Our ancestors were highly adept at extracting resources from the environment. However, the same evolved tendencies that enabled our ancestors to thrive in their environment can wreak havoc in the very different modern world. The authors examine the evolutionary bases of destructive and ecologically damaging human behavior. They propose that many modern environmental problems are caused or exacerbated by five evolutionary tendencies. Each tendency can lead to marketing and policy mistakes, but each tendency can also be harnessed to spur pro-environmental and sustainable behavior.

First, humans have evolved to prioritize self-interest over group welfare. This means that strategies urging people to value the group above themselves will be ineffective. Although it is difficult to eradicate the proclivity for self-interest, people are more likely to behave prosocially when behavior is grounded in evolutionarily selfish reasoning. For example, people are more willing to self-sacrifice and behave pro-environmentally if they foresee a material gain for themselves, their kin, or their tribe.

Second, humans have evolved to be more motivated by relative rather than absolute status. This means that strategies urging people to be content with their current level of status or behave in ways that lowers their status will be ineffective. Rather than trying to eradicate the drive for status, marketing can channel the same thirst for status to facilitate socially beneficial behavior. For example, encouraging people to compete on pro-environmental outcomes, such as by publicizing lists of “least polluting companies,” will motivate individuals and firms to voluntarily adopt more sustainable practices.

Third, humans have evolved to unconsciously copy what others are doing. This means that messages depicting the regrettable frequency of environmentally damaging behavior (e.g., “83% of people are not recycling!”) actually promote the damaging behavior. Instead, messages should depict the high prevalence or perceived prevalence of the desired behavior (e.g., “A million bottles are recycled every day!”).

Fourth, humans have evolved to value the present more than the future. This means that calls for people to value the needs of future generations as much as their own needs are unrealistic. However, people value the future more when they believe they live in a safe and predictable world. For example, improving the perceived safety and predictability of urban environments will lead people to value the future and thereby conserve environmental resources.

Fifth, humans have evolved to disregard problems they cannot see or feel. This means that people will be less responsive to cognitively based messages highlighting statistics about environmental degradation. Instead, people will be more responsive to environmental threats that they can feel, hear, smell, touch, or see. For example, people will be more responsive to air quality concerns when invisible but harmful emissions are intentionally colored to show the level of pollutants in the air, and people will be more responsive to water pollution if the taste and smell of public drinking water has been altered according to the level of pollutants in the water.

Vladas Griskevicius is Assistant Professor and McKnight Land-Grant Professor in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. His expertise is in consumer behavior and evolutionary psychology. His research examines the ancestral roots of modern consumer behavior. Professor Griskevicius’s research on sustainability and social influence, motivation and emotion, and conspicuous consumption has been published in top marketing and psychology journals. In addition to receiving the 2011 Best Article Award from Journal of Consumer Research, his work and has been awarded honors by the Society for Consumer Psychology and the Human Behavior and Evolution Society.

Stephanie M. Cantú is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Her research interests primarily focus on environmental mismatch and evolutionary approaches to consumer behavior. She graduated with honors from the University of Texas with degrees in Business Management and Psychology.

Mark van Vugt is Professor of Group and Organizational Psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. His expertise is in evolutionary psychology, group dynamics, leadership, status, conflict and cooperation, and applications of evolutionary psychology to understand and address societal issues such as environmental sustainability, water conservation, transportation, and business management. His research on the environment and sustainability has been published in top journals in psychology, including Psychological Science, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Environment and Behavior, Current Directions in Psychological Science, and Journal of Applied Social Psychology. He is a former associate editor of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2012
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Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú, and Mark van Vugt
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