Environmental Attitudes and Behavior

Synth Author(s): Samantha Shafer, Sarah Ruggiere, Max Haworth, Jhana Taylor Valentine, Finn Marino; Spring 2013
Comparison: One Topic in Multiple Sites
Research Site(s): India, International Locations, Willapa Bay
Question: How do environmental perceptions affect social behavior?

Included Projects

  • Effectiveness of Transnational Aid in Kibera
    The overall focus of my research project is to survey the relationships among transnational advocacy networks and peri-urban areas that lack governmental support. My aim is to evaluate the effectiveness of these relations in achieving improvements of health and living conditions for inhabitants of these peri-urban areas. I conducted my research in Nairobi, Kenya, more specifically within the informal sector known as Kibera, located directly in the heart of Nairobi. Through preliminary research of both Kibera, and two of the...

  • Willapa Acidification 2011
    This study will examine public attitudes surrounding the failure of commercially important oyster populations to naturally replenish themselves in each of last six years. Scientists contend this failure has resulted primarily from CO2 induced ocean acidification. Situated in Willapa Bay, southwestern Washington, this study offers a unique opportunity to examine public attitudes about the effects of greenhouse gas accumulations, as this is arguably the first time that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 are having a direct and demonstrable impact on...

  • Getting to the Meat of Moral Discourse and Practice
    Humans are in the unique position of being omnivores with a conscience as we have the biological leeway and rational ability to make a choice about meat consumption. Despite the fact that the words of Peter Singer’s normative argument that we ought not eat meat have been ringing in our ears for thirty-five years, most of us continue to eat meat. The discrepancy between the advice of experts and the actions of most indicates that a normative theory may not...

  • Can Countries Learn From Each Others Environmental Educational Models?
    With a historically unprecedented call for the “environment” to be a topic taught about in schools on a global scale, entire nations are forced to put in ink what this subject is. India and the US have developed environmental education in response to the growing awareness of environmental problems. Comparing the environmental educational standards and self representations of these culturally and historically distinct countries provides interesting insights into how their conceptions of the environment frame approaches of environmental problems. I...

  • Perceptions of Geohazard Vulnerability in South Central Chile
    Subduction zones produce high-magnitude earthquakes and significant volcanic eruptions worldwide, with varying event frequencies. South-central Chile is one of the most seismically and volcanically active subduction regions in the world, generating one major earthquake and four major eruptions in the past six years. This study examines perceptions of geologic hazard (geohazard) risk in south-central Chile, and explores the extent to which perceptions of risk align with actual risk. It includes a cross-sectional statistical analysis of 136...


In the formation of our synthesis group, our common interest in environmental attitudes and behaviors led us to ask the question, How do environmental attitudes affect social behavior? In each project we examined, the situated example illustrated how social factors were behind environmental attitudes, which in turn influenced how people behaved. While comparing our five chosen projects, we interpreted “attitudes” as meaning how motivated, engaged and empowered individuals feel when it comes to topics of ecological concern. Our projects are situated in a variety of locations around the world, and each relate a specific example of how people’s perceptions influence their individual decisions and cultural trends.  For example, in Willapa Bay, Washington and South-Central Chile the behavior of community members towards ecosystems which support their livelihoods were influenced by factors such as a lack of education and socioeconomic status. Connections to NGOs or increased access to information, as studied by the Kibera and Oregon projects, affect behavior by providing a feeling of empowerment to individuals and communities. Because our chosen projects cover broad topics and are not all completed, our analysis is based in our own interpretations of what is implied by the projects.

Anna Foreman was researching environmental education in India and the US when she realized that environmental perceptions were influenced by many outside factors besides formal learning, such as the political, economic and cultural patterns of the country. Her project, titled Can Countries Learn From Each Others Environmental Education Models?, aims to better understand how industrialization and development in these countries contribute to the “dominant environmental attitudes,” beyond what is taught in the classroom. Her research questions point to historical socioeconomic trends as a fundamental contributor. Because this project is still in process and, as of yet, inconclusive, we can only infer what factors affect these attitudes. Generations of cultural norms and behavior compound to create the current state of environmental awareness, and thus affect how people are formally educated. Education influences perceptions which guide individuals’ decisions, and thus Foreman’s project addresses one of many roots of social behavior.

Meat consumption is more of an option for humans as we are omnivores. Cloe Waterman’s project, Getting to the Meat of Moral Discourse, is concerned with humanity’s capability to choose whether to be a meat or a non-meat eater. Her project investigates the attitudes and the justifications of people’s choices in terms of eating meat and how a person’s decision relates to environmental problems. Whether people choose to eat meat is not only an ethical, personal decision but an environmental decision as well. How individuals perceive issues such as climate change, limits to growth, and land degradation affect the attitudes and behaviors people have towards meat consumption.

Matsumoto’s project, Effectiveness of Transnational Aid in Kibera, intended to assess the relationship between transnational aid organizations and native communities in Kibera, Kenya. She examined whether the intentions of the community or the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “dominate the course of action” in terms of policy objectives and implementation. Specifically, Matsumoto wanted to see what effect each has on environmental perceptions. The results of this project show that the people of Kibera demonstrate a strong desire for “sustained change”, and implies that the NGO’s provide a sense of empowerment, in a “teach a man how to fish” way, as the old proverb goes. Matsumoto uses the example of a “Trash for Cash” initiative that had successful results in the community, and was an example of overlapping objectives between the two actors. She discusses the frustration felt by the community when the outside organizations make empty promises or they do not have similar objectives. In terms of the NGOs’ impacts on specific aspects of “change” or the “environment”, Matsumoto does not narrow her investigation to one behavior, policy or program. Still, one can gather from her research that the NGOs can suggest solutions and provide a sense of empowerment to the community when the people are self-motivated to begin with. So in theory, the NGOs influence the community’s environmental perceptions by presenting possible solutions. The resulting impact would be more ecologically conscious social behavior in Kibera.

The Willapa Acidification 2011 project set out to understand people’s perception of global climate change in the context of the Willapa Bay area in Washington. This area’s oyster industry (a major sector of this economy) has been heavily affected by acidification of the ocean. Clifton, Coggeshal, and Rodrigues used three public surveys to assess the public’s state of awareness about this issue. Their results showed that, astoundingly, most people in Willapa, even those directly connected with the industry, were unaware of what anthropogenic factors contribute to ocean acidification. What’s more, the large majority was unaware of or denounced acidification as having an impact on oyster populations. These survey results lead us to believe that the Willapa Bay community, even though it experiences first hand the ramifications, has been misinformed about the causes of climate change and its effects on local oyster populations. This connects with our question, How do environmental perceptions affect social behavior?, in that a lack of education has contributed to the complacency found in this area.

Ted Hamilton, in his project Perceptions of Geohazard Vulnerability in South Central Chile, aims to determine how people’s perceptions of geological hazards and disasters are affected by different factors in South Central Chile. These factors include geographic location, or a person’s proximity to these potential hazards, and social factors such as class, race, sex and age. He theorizes that though ecological disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes are indiscriminate, a person’s socioeconomic status may affect their ability to prepare against, and recover from, an ecological disaster. This, therefore, shapes their perception of the ‘reality’ of these hazards. For example, residents of a coastal community would be more aware of a tsunami as a potential risk in daily life, than a resident of a mountainous region. Hamilton’s study aims to expose the dichotomy, if one exists, of the reality and perception of vulnerability through a comparison of surveys and evaluations of Risk Index factors (such as population density and volcanic and earthquake potential) of each area. Though currently in progress, the project brings up points of social justice, cultural lenses and environmental education as significant factors in the shaping of people’s perceptions, and therefore behaviors regarding their ecological surroundings.

These projects, though some are inconclusive, offer insight as to the factors that may affect a person or group of people’s perception, and therefore behaviors. These factors include education and awareness (or lack thereof), socioeconomic status and cultural values. By shaping people’s perceptions, we can see how these factors have influenced individual’s sense of responsibility to protect at-risk ecosystems, personal lifestyle choices and concern for potential natural disasters. From examining these projects, we have found that many complex social factors shapes individual environmental attitudes, which can be used to explain both individual and community behaviors.

About the author

Samantha Shafer

I'm Sam Shafer, a senior in Environmental Studies at Lewis & Clark College with a constant curiosity and a serious case of the travel bug. My current focus is on theoretical approaches to rethinking naturalness and greening curriculum. I am passionate about critical pedagogy and in my (sparse) free time you can find me making art, befriending lichens, or playing the ukulele. Originally from Highland Park, Illinois, I now call Portland, Oregon my home.