Temporal Myopia in Sustainable Behavior under Uncertainty

By Arianne J. van der Wal, Femke van Horen and Amir Grinstein - Marketing

06-04-2018 | 15:14


In recent years our world is confronted with a number of “big” societal problems, that have significant impact on our political, economic, environmental and social landscapes. Among the most prominent are problems related to sustainability (for example, pollution and degradation of resources) and to an increase in levels of felt uncertainty (for example, due to economic instability, migration, and terror attacks). Anecdotal evidence suggests that these two societal problems affect each other negatively, as people’s priorities shift due to the increase of uncertainty and often away from behavior improving sustainability. For instance, the economic crisis has played a major role in the deadlock of climate policy, as the economic growth occupies the political agenda and money spent to save financial systems instead of being invested in climate endeavors such as renewable energy. In addition, threats of terror, such as 9/11, which has become much more widespread all over Europe, have lead people to increase their consumption and greediness.

Overall, these findings seem to suggest that people become more focused on the here and now when they are exposed to uncertainty. Conversely, sustainable behavior carries a strong future component, as it requires optimizing environmental, social, and economic consequences to meet future generations’ needs. Due to sustainable behavior’s inherent future scope, a future orientation is a necessity for people to behave sustainably. Hence, there seems to be a mismatch between uncertainty and sustainable behavior regarding people’s orientation about the here and now as compared to the future, which could explain the negative relation between uncertainty and sustainability.

Contributing to research on persuasion and pro-social behavior, the current research shows, in a controlled and systematic manner, that uncertainty due to world’s unpredictability indeed leads to lower sustainable behavior in comparison to certainty. Additionally, it shows that consumers become more oriented on the here and now in uncertain times, which conflicts with the future focus of sustainability. Importantly, we tested a strategy that could mitigate or even reverse the negative effect of uncertainty on sustainable behavior, namely stressing the immediate benefits (sustainable seafood supports the current survival of marine life) of sustainable behavior as opposed to its future benefits (sustainable seafood supports the future survival of marine life). Among others, evidence for this buffering effect was found in the real life setting of terrorism. Two weeks after the terrorist attack at Brussels airport and subway system on 22 March 2016, people at Brussels train station were asked to donate money to environmental organization WWF. People donated more money when the direct benefits of their monetary donation was made salient instead of the long-term benefits.

To conclude, our research showed that the promotion of sustainability by policy makers and responsible marketers in this uncertain era is not destined to fail, but the communication strategy needs to take care of the temporal aspect of the messages sent to the public by highlighting the immediate benefits of sustainable behavior.

Read the article: Van der Wal, A.J., Van Horen, F.,  Grinstein, A. Temporal myopia in sustainable behavior under uncertainty. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 2018.

About Femke van Horen

emptyFemke van Horen - profielfotoFemke van Horen is an Associate Professor at the Marketing Department. She obtained her PhD at Tilburg University and worked as a Post Doctoral Researcher at the Social Cognition Lab of the University of Cologne, Germany. In 2013 she joined the Marketing Department at the Vrije Universiteit as an Assistant Professor, where she was appointed as Associate Professor in 2016.

About Amir Grinstein
Amir Grinstein
Amir Grinstein is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the VU (since 2012) and Northeastern University (since 2015). He obtained a PhD in marketing from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a post-doctorate from Harvard Business School.