Work With Evolution, Not Against it, to Craft Green Messages

By Bonnie J. Wallace

How can marketers design campaigns that motivate good environmental choices? Human nature seems to work against behaviors that would be in the best interest of the collective, as the well-known tragedy of the commons metaphor illustrates. But there may be some good news: in the Spring 2012 edition of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, the authors of The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship argue that these same behavioral tendencies can be harnessed to encourage more sustainable choices and behavior if they are properly understood.

Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú, and Mark van Vugt propose five different adaptive tendencies that form the evolutionary bases for our most destructive environmental and social behavior:

  1. Propensity for Self-Interest
  2. Desire for Relative Status
  3. Unconsciously Copying the Behavior of Others
  4. Valuing the Present over the Future, and
  5. Disregarding Impalpable Concerns

They then outline classic messaging approaches that fail to work as a result of these evolved tendencies, and suggest more effective approaches that leverage unconscious human nature. This is the first of a series of blog posts that explore their findings.

Behaviors that helped us to thrive when we were hunter-gatherers now threaten to destroy us and many other species. Our environment has changed much more quickly than our ability to develop new adaptive behaviors. If we employ strategies designed to change behavior that don’t take into account our evolutionary wiring, we risk making no difference—or worse, exacerbating the very problem we were trying to solve.

For example, the first ancestral tendency cited is the propensity for self-interest. Natural selection pushes us toward making choices that will be more likely to ensure the survival of our genes. Thus “a campaign urging people to use restraint in water use actually increased water use because people feared that others would be unwilling to restrain themselves.” A more effective approach could be tying the reduction of water use to keeping it available for their own children, grandchildren, etc.

Reciprocal altruism is another self-interest evolutionary trait that harnesses cooperation between interdependent non-kin groups. Cause marketing holds great promise in leveraging that tendency. However, typical cause marketing approaches (buy this widget and we’ll donate X$ to Y charity!) get the order of the give wrong: the authors cite new research showing that “a message in hotel rooms informing guests that the hotel had already donated to an environmental cause on behalf of its guests increased towel use by 26%.” Note that this order, where the requester of the behavior change makes the first give, actually allows the recipients to reciprocate!

Indirect reciprocity is a related trait that is tied to reputation and increased status, and can be a very persuasive motivator for individuals and corporations alike. Desire to enhance or protect reputation prompts many individuals to make conspicuous green choices, and can push corporations to put sustainable practices into effect. The authors point to the consumer-led “name and shame” campaign that compelled McDonald’s to discontinue plastic packaging.

Harnessing our unconscious desire to act in our genetic self-interest is a powerful way to shift behavior, both on an individual, and a corporate level. Understand these sometimes counter-intuitive motivators can help marketers craft messages that lead to desired outcomes instead of unintended ones.


Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.

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