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You May Recycle, But You’re Still Not Cool

UF researchers conduct first implicit bias research on environmentalist attitudes and behaviors.

UF Assistant Professor of Psychology Kate Ratliff and graduate researcher Liz Redford have published the first study using implicit measures of attitudes toward environmentalists. The paper was published on March 28 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Their research, conducted in collaboration with Jenny Howell, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio University, suggests that people’s implicit attitudes towards environmentalists aren’t as favorable towards environmentalists as they say they are.

Combining data from Project Implicit, which offers online implicit association tests (IATs) to the global community, with data from on-campus research, the researchers found that implicit attitudes about the prototypical environmentalist better predicted environmentally friendly behavior, such as recycling or carpooling, than explicit attitudes. However, explicit attitudes are inflated compared to implicit ones, as people manage their impressions by emphasizing their “green” philosophy, even if they don’t walk the talk.

Kate Ratliff standing in front of bulletin board
Kate Ratliff in her office

“Humans are incredibly social,” said Ratliff. “We care about what others think of us, and these results suggest that we’re more likely to engage in behavior that is good for the environment if we believe that we’ll get positive regard — from ourselves or others — for doing so.” This phenomenon, called social desirability bias, can be mitigated by using IATs, which require rapid responses that leave no room for higher-level thinking.

The IATs and speeded self-reports assessed respondents’ evaluations of environmentalists in five positive and negative dimensions: attractiveness, fun, cool, intelligence, and “judgmentalness.” For the first three dimensions, respondents’ implicit attitudes weren’t as favorable toward environmentalists as their explicit values, perhaps because people have internalized negative societal attitudes, even if they say they think environmentalism is “cool.”

“Even if we think it’s important to eat vegetarian, for example, we might not do so if we have negative views of the typical vegetarian,” said Ratliff. However, implicit attitudes better predicted environmentally friendly behavior than did explicit attitudes. The exception was on the intelligence value, for which both implicit and explicit attitudes predicted green behavior.

Interestingly, on the “judgmentalness” dimension, implicit and explicit attitudes were equally favorable, and self-reported green behavior was not predicted by those attitudes. However, for those with less positive explicit attitudes, implicit attitudes were linked to less green behavior. That is, how people behave has a lot to do with implicit, automatic evaluations of groups associated with the behaviors in question.