Collective Problems Require Collective Answers: A Social Identity Model of Pro-Environmental Action



Immo Fritsche, Universität Leipzig


Large-scale environmental crises, such as, for instance, global climate change, are both outcome and determinant of aggregated human behavior. However, most of the pertinent research still focusses on attributes of individuals and how these determine sustainable action (e.g., perceptions of personal self-efficacy, personal costs and gains) and how individuals are affected by crises (e.g., individual health). Although collectives are of course made up of individuals, social identity research shows that people think and act differently depending on whether they think of themselves as individual persons ("I") or as collectives ("We"). I present a social identity model of pro-environmental action, highlighting the decisive role, social identity plays for individuals’ appraisals of and responses to large-scale environmental crises. The model proposes three social identity variables to affect people’s private and publicsphere pro-environmental actions. First, ingroup norms and goals specify whether, and to what extent, people’s group stands for pro-environmentalism. Second, collective efficacy beliefs indicate whether the group is able to bring about significant change to reduce crisis. Third, for the previous variables to affect individual actions, individuals have to self-categorize and identify with the group in a situation. This can be any group (e.g., citizens of a country, gender groups, ideology groups etc.), and not just groups that are inherently related to environmental action (e.g., environmental action groups, motorist groups). These variables are both affecting (e.g., climate change denial in US conservatives) and are affected by environmental crisis appraisals. Whereas group-specific perceptions and emotions (e.g., collective guilt or anger) may determine ingroup norms and efficacy beliefs, helplessness or threat appraisals resulting from environmental crises can immediately foster collective responses by automatically strengthening collective self-definition and group-based action intention. I will illustrate the causal links proposed in the model by our own and others’ experimental and correlational research and discuss the model with regard to both theory development and application potentials. Specifically, research on the power of “We” may not just complement campaigners behavioral change toolbox but may also tell a lot about the human potential to tackle collective challenges of unprecedented complexity.



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