How We deceive Ourselves on Pro-Environmental Commitment[1]

[1] The idea of this blog post is partly based on the article of Herrmann, S. (2020): “Wieso wir uns selbst belügen”. Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Recently I discovered a major mistake I did while designing a questionnaire.

For an empirical investigation whether the relocation of the university library to a place further away from the canteen led to a reduction of sold lunch meals we asked students for possible reasons regarding a decrease of their food intake in the canteen.

We offered them the answer “Less time to cook”. Of course, it should have been stated the other way round but due to this error we got an important insight of the weaknesses of surveys. Logically, people should not tick the options “It is rather correct” or “It is correct” since this would be a contradiction. Nevertheless, 7 out of 32 students marked these two options (Alsharif et al. 2020).

Normally, the attention during the editing of a questionnaire will increase for a short period of time but decreases with an increasing duration (Raithel 2008). Therefore, with an increasing processing time of the survey reflective thinking shifts to intuitive thinking, the so called “System 1”(Kahneman, 2011).

This leads us to the question if there are further problematic issues regarding stated preferences in quantitative surveys with a questionnaire and how this is related to sustainable behaviour of the individual.

Indeed, it can be shown in many studies that people give answers that are socially desirable. This effect may be related to food-self reports whereby individuals understate their intake of greasy meals as well as to overstatements on the usage of carsharing (Hebert et al. 1995; UK Department for Transport 2017) . Such a social desirability bias is related to the cultural context and therefore differs depending on the region. An impressive example is the overreport on church attendance that appears in the U.S. and Canada to a substantial degree but not in Europe (Brenner 2011).

Problems related to a social desirability bias may also be a concern in self-statements on environmental protection. This is suggested by an experiment design checking the participants previous answers on their attitude and self-reported behaviour on environmental issues. To be precise, participants were given money which could be used for a platform to cancel certified emissions reductions (CERs) and thus equalize carbon emissions. At the end, they were asked of their political orientation. In their online experiment in the U.S. , Giangiacomo & Farjam (2020) could show in line with other studies that there is a huge discrepancy between people´s concern on environmental protection and on their actual contributions, the so-called attitude-behaviour gap. Interestingly, the discrepancy between attitude to environmental matters and acting was found to be greater among liberals then for conservatives. An even larger gap appeared between self-reported and actual behaviour for both groups.

So, what implications can be drawn out of this, why are we deceiving ourselves?

One limitation of the study might be the context, since issues referring to climate change are especially politically loaded in the U.S.A. and affected by social group norms. However, there are clear inferences of these results that suggest that the attitude-behaviour gap is a concern.

One explanation may be the theory of cognitive dissonance which suggests that people maintain a framework of self-consistency and self-affirmation and experience discomfort if they perceive inconsistencies between their actual behaviour and personal standards or self-expectations (Schrems & Upham 2020). In the context of the experiment this dissonance seems to appear between the self-reported behaviour and the actual contributions to carbon compensation.

A further reason for the discrepancy between concern and commitment may be the better than-average effect. This is a bias whereby people overestimate their abilities such as in sports, social skills and in leadership skills compared to others. It is proposed that it helps us to maintain a positive self-concept (Alicke & Govorun 2005).

This effect can be observed in beliefs about own contributions to climate change mitigations as a replicated online survey on this issue shows. Conducted among a sample in India, the U.K. and in the U.S., more than 75% of the participants rated their own pro-environmental commitments as above average, which is of course a contradiction. In addition to that, there is a small indication that the presence of this bias may lead to even lesser pro-environmental engagement in the future (Bergquist 2020).

To conclude this, I would like to point out the implications of the findings have for us. First, it should be taken caution of the design of a questionnaire in general due to the bounded rationality of the individuals. Moreover, we should be aware that there is a clear divergence between people´s attention, their attitude and observed behaviour. One example is the exaggeration of our contributions to sustainability.

Therefore, I would like to appeal on our self-image highlighting the importance of self-criticism regarding our emphasizes on personal efforts to reduce the carbon footprint. Not only for the sake of our integrity but also for the concern of the environment.


Alicke, M. D & O. Govorun (2005): “The Better-Than-Average Effect”. In Alicke, M. D.; D. A. Dunning & Krueger J. I. (eds.). The Self in Social Judgment. Studies in Self and Identity. Psychology Press. pp. 85.

Alsharif, A. A., Deisenberger, F., Meester, J. & L. Spatz (2020): “Untersuchung eines möglichen Einflusses eines Universitätsbibliothekstandortes auf die räumlichen Ernährungsgewohnheiten von Studierenden – Am Beispiel des Umzugs der Universitätsbibliothek Marburg im April 2018“. University of Marburg.

Bergquist, M. (2020): “Most People Think They Are More Pro-Environmental than Others: A Demonstration of the Better-than-Average Effect in Perceived Pro-Environmental Behavioral Engagement”. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 42(1), pp. 50-61.

Brenner, P. S. (2011): “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Idendity? Overreporting of church attendance in the U.S. Public Opinion”. Quarterly, 75 (1), pp. 19-41.

Giangiacomo, B. & M. Farjam(2020): “The gap between self-reported and actual contributions to

climate change mitigation in US residents”. SocArXiv.

Hebert, J. R.; Clemow, L.; Pbert, L ; Ockene, I. S. & Ockene J. K. (1995): “Social Desirability Bias in Dietary Self-Report May Compromise the validity of dietary intake measures”. International Journal of Epidemiology, 24 (2), pp. 389-398.

Kahnemann, D. (2011): “Thinking, fast and slow”. Allan Lane. London.

Raithel, J. (2008): “Quantitative Forschung. Ein Praxiskurs“. 2. edition. Wiesbaden.

Schrems, I. & P. Upham (2020): “Cognitive Dissonance in Sustainability Scientists regarding air travel for academic purposes: a qualitative study”. Sustainability (12), 1837.

UK Department for Transport (2017). “An Evaluation of Low Cost Workplace-Based Interventions to Encourage Use of Sustainable Transport”. Technical Report.

  • < publications/evaluating-low-cost-interventions-to-encourage-the-use-of-sustainable-transport> (accessed on June 23, 2020).

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