Virtue Signaling for the Environment isn't Working

To win hearts and minds for the environment, stop trying to be perfect.

Snobbish, pretentious, hypocritical — these adjectives, and a still longer list of others, have been aimed at people showing off their pro-environmental behaviors with some writers, like Energy Central’s Alan Rozich, going as far as calling this “green” virtue signaling “a rampant disease.” Maybe you don't carry around a tote with “my reusable bag makes me better than you” written across it (yes, it's a real thing — you can buy it online for $12.10), but haven't most of us done at least some virtue signaling? Felt a bit smug that we eat vegan, buy local, or bike to work?

But is it really that bad to boast about owning an electric car or living a zero-plastic lifestyle? After all, assuming these behaviors are better for the environment, isn’t it good to lead by example? Well, it’s actually not that simple.

Research shows that virtue signaling can backfire, both for the people who flaunt their good eco-deeds and for the environment that we are supposedly trying to help. Studies on a phenomenon called do-gooder derogation reveal that we have a tendency to put down people who appear more ethical than us, especially if their moral behavior threatens our own self-image. Perhaps you eat meat yet feel conflicted about it — maybe you have a soft spot for the cow that wound up in your burger. Watching a vegan demonstratively reject a meaty dish can activate your cognitive dissonance, an unpleasant state which arises whenever we hold dear several mutually inconsistent beliefs or when there is a gap between our attitudes and our behavior. To get rid of that nasty feeling and patch up your own moral integrity, you can convince yourself that said vegan is just a judgmental poser.

In a series of experiments conducted at Stanford University, for example, the more meat-eaters expected vegetarians to view themselves as morally superior, the harsher the words they used to describe them: pretentious, preachy, crazy, and, yes, judgmental posers. And it’s not just vegetarians versus meat eaters, either. Studies of the general population show that people perceive organic food consumers as narcissistic and as flaunting their morals. In one of the studies, for example, people were shown shopping receipts with organic products—like milk and tomatoes—or their regular versions, and then asked to attribute certain characteristics to the receipt owners. Shoppers who bought organic were seen as trying to appear as more moral than they actually were, while this accusation didn't extend to non-organic shoppers.

Turning off potential do-gooders from your cause is clearly counterproductive, but virtue signaling can also undermine the impact of our own well-intended actions. From an environmental perspective, green virtue signaling may become problematic if it makes us cherry-pick our values, focusing on acts that are easy to flaunt but have lesser impact on the planet while continuing to engage in more harmful behaviors. Vegans flying to exotic destinations. Parents driving SUVs farther to pick up local organic food for their kids. Even that "better than you” reusable bag is not so good after all: you'd have to use it every day for nearly 55 years to lower its carbon footprint to that of a single-use plastic bag.

The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. A study in Transportation Research, for instance, shows that when people purchase electric cars, they end up driving more often. Another from Applied Economics found that those with green electricity providers buy more electronic gadgets — which may be a problem not only because such gadgets require valuable resources to produce, but their use puts a strain on the grid and uses energy that could have been put to other, more valuable, uses. In experiments, feeling smug about having done planet-friendly shopping makes people less likely to recycle right after. Even having an environmentally-conscious partner, one researcher noted, may give people a moral license to act less green.

And if that weren’t enough, we may be more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products. In an experiment conducted at the University of Toronto, undergrad students were invited to do some pretend online shopping, either in a green store (where they could stock up on recycled paper towels, organic shampoos, etc.) or a conventional one. Afterward, in a seemingly unconnected exercise, the volunteers were invited to play a simple computer game to earn real money. The game was designed so that it encouraged cheating — and cheat they did, especially those who had previously shopped in a green store. What’s more, green store shoppers were also much more likely to steal extra money from an envelope from which they were expected to take their payment. While conventional store shoppers stole, on average, a mere eight cents, the green shoppers helped themselves to seven times as much.

Don’t get me wrong. Virtue signaling is not all bad. For one, it can help you feel better about yourself. People who engage in pro-environmental behaviors tend to be more satisfied with their lives, no matter the particular environmental behavior they engage in. Research on a phenomenon called warm glow suggests that this may be due to the fact that acting green makes us feel like we are good people. Although, of course, you — and the environment — reap the benefits of your green deeds no matter whether you publicize them or not.

What’s more, showing off green deeds can, in certain circumstances, bring real change. This can happen through setting up new social norms. When hotel guests learn that others reuse their towels, for example, they are more likely to reuse theirs as well. And if our neighbors reduce food waste, we tend to follow their example.

So how do we avoid the perils of green virtue signaling while keeping the benefits? Geoffrey Miller, an environmental psychology professor at the University of Mexico, identifies two types of virtue signaling: “cheap talk” (like that “I’m better than you” tote bag), and genuine reflection of underlying values. According to Miller, virtue signaling as cheap talk includes bumper stickers, yard signs, and social media posts. The other, genuine type, is usually costly and long-term. Think volunteering for months on political campaigns or giving up exotic vacations in favor of camping near home. “When the instincts to virtue signal are combined with a curiosity about science, open-mindedness about values and viewpoints, rationality about priorities and policies, and strategic savvy about ways and means, then wonderful things can happen,” he writes.

However, even if your intentions are genuine and you truly review the science behind your green deeds to evaluate what matters and what doesn’t, you may still fall victim to do-gooder derogation. In fact, when people appear as holier-than-thou, others may be less likely to follow their example. In a series of experiments conducted at the University of Toronto, volunteers were less keen to follow advice from an article written by a journalist presented as a typical environmentalist than from an identical article published by someone who was perceived as neutral. Research on organizations, meanwhile, suggests that highly virtuous leaders—those that follow rules and demand others follow them as well—inspire fewer ethical behaviors in their employees than those who are generally ethical yet still a bit imperfect — such leaders, for instance, might set an example of how to do things the right way in terms of ethics, perhaps, but not always discipline employees who violate ethical standards.

As such, one solution to the pitfalls of green virtue signaling may be to embrace our own hypocrisy. No one is perfect, and nor should they be, and striving for environmental sainthood is a sure path to frustration for everyone involved. Being honest about our dilemmas and flawed choices can make others feel less judged (which is the pillar of do-gooder derogation). We need more empathy, less moralizing, and less black-and-white attitudes. So don’t frown at drivers as their cars zoom by your bike. Don’t flight-shame people — say you are reducing air travel, for example, not that you’ll never fly again. If you are vegetarian but crave meat sometimes, admit it. If we want the world to really change, we should be careful not to pose a moral threat to others, or we might set off their psychological self-defense mechanisms, make them clam up in their shells. Recognizing our own weaknesses, I believe, is the first step to ending the virtue-signaling wars.