Accidental Environmentalists: Examining the Effect of Income on Positive Social Evaluations of Environmentally-Friendly Lifestyles

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Principal investigators:

Emily Huddart Kennedy

University of British Columbia



Christine Horne

Washington State University



Sample size: 2595

Field period: 03/06/2018-05/31/2018

Many US households have adopted behaviors aimed at reducing their environmental impact. Existing scholarship examines antecedent variables predicting engagement in these pro-environmental behaviors. But little research examines the effect of making efforts to reduce environmental impact on positive evaluations. Based on our qualitative pilot data, we suspect that income may be an important factor in the extent to which green lifestyles earn social approval. We predict that a household that reduces its environmental impact will be viewed more positively if that household has a high (rather than low) income. We manipulate household income (high vs low) and proenvironmental behavior (green vs typical). We then measure participants' approval of the household, how socially close they feel to the household, as well as their evaluations of the household's competence, morality, and environmental commitment. This research allows us to identify the bases for social approval of green lifestyles and examine how social approval for a household's green lifestyle varies with that household's income.

Our primary research question was:
1. Are high-income households with a green lifestyle judged more favorably than low-income green households?
Additional questions are:
2. Do people approve of efforts to reduce environmental impact?
3. Does the political ideology of the evaluator affect judgments?

Experimental Manipulations
We randomly assigned participants to one of four manipulations:
1. Green (low environmental impact), low-income.
2. Green (low environmental impact), high-income.
3. Typical (average environmental impact), low-income.
4. Typical (average environmental impact, high-income.

1. General approval of the household (Bicchieri 2017).
2. Social closeness (desire to be friends with the household) (MacLean and Kleycamp 2014).
3. Morality (perception of how ethical the household is).
4. Competence (perception of how competent the household is).
5. Environmental concern (perception of how concerned about the environment the household is).

Summary of Results
We find evidence of widespread approval for efforts to reduce environmental impact. The "green" conditions were perceived as more ethical, more concerned about the environment, and more competent than a typical household. Participants were also more likely to want to be friends with a "green" household and to approve of the household. However, these evaluations were higher for wealthy green households than for low-income green households. We suggest that people view low-income green households as "accidental environmentalists"--actors who reduce environmental impact out of necessity rather than a desire to protect the environment. Our data also suggest that political liberals are more likely than conservatives withhold praise from low-income green households and award praise to high-income green households. These observations raise questions about the extent to which wealth affects assumptions of an actor's capacity to act intentionally.


Conference papers:

Kennedy, Emily H. and Christine Horne. 2019. Accidental environmentalist or ethical elite? The moral dimensions of environmental impact. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association. New York, NY. August 12.

Kennedy, Emily H. and Christine Horne. 2018. Green Consumption and Social Status, in Invited Session: Conceptual Frameworks and New Frontiers in Energy Justice: From Macro to Micro Levels. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association. Philadelphia, PA. August 13.
Articles submitted for publication:

Horne, Christine, and Kennedy, Emily H. 2019. The implications of social status for approval of contributions to the collective good: Understanding social rewards for proenvironmental behavior. Submitted for publication.