Humans are a remarkably optimistic and confident bunch. In psychological circles this is not just conjecture but a proven phenomenon known as the ‘better than average effect’ (BTAE). Academic research has demonstrated that people consistently think they are better than the average person when it comes to driving, teaching, athletic ability, leadership skills and social skills. People rate themselves as more honest, persistent and original than average; they also overestimate their likelihood of being right.
A new set of studies has now demonstrated that BTAE also applies to people’s perception of their environmental credentials. The research, conducted at the University of Gothenburg, reveals that out of 4,000 survey participants from Sweden, the United States, England and India, the majority were convinced that they acted more environmentally friendly than the average person – a mathematical impossibility.
The researchers tested this using two methods, known as direct and indirect. For the former (used in Sweden) people were simply asked whether they thought they were more or less environmentally friendly than others in their country. The indirect approach (used for the other countries) involved asking participants about specific behaviours, such as buying green products, turning off taps when brushing teeth and taking a reusable bag to the shops.
Both methods demonstrated the effect in action. The percentage of people rating their own pro-environmental engagement as above average was 75.3 per cent in the total sample of Indians, English and Americans (85.7 per cent in the Indian sample, 72 per cent in the English sample, and 63.7 per cent in the US sample). When it came to specific behaviours, the effect was found to hold for nine out of ten pro-environmental behaviours tested. In the Swedish study, 51.3 per cent of the sample perceived themselves as more pro-environmental than others.
The risk of BTAE is that if everyone already thinks they are doing so well, it could mean that people feel less obliged to step up their game in the future. The research did not show a strong risk of this, but environmental psychology researcher Magnus Bergquist points out that even a small effect in this regard could have a large impact across whole societies. ‘From a theoretical perspective, this effect is very small,’ he says. ‘But on the other hand, you need to think about the effect from an applied perspective. Even a small effect could be important if you scale this up on a societal level.’