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Standing the Test of Time: How a Country’s Age Predicts Citizens’ Environmental Performance

By Hal Hershfield, H. Min Bang and Elke U. Weber

hal hershfield

The research suggests that framing a country as a longstanding entity may lead consumers to act in a more pro-environmental manner.

As awareness of environmental issues has grown in recent decades, some countries have shown greater willingness than others to invest in sustainability. Professor Hal Hershfield and his colleagues, H. Min Bang and Elke U. Weber of Columbia University, explored the psychological factors that lie behind nations’ willingness to make present-day sacrifices in order to ensure future environmental benefits. They found that citizens of older countries were more likely to invest in sustainability initiatives, which they suggest may be because the citizens inherently believe that their country’s long past predicts a long future.

The researchers’ hypothesis was based on Gott’s principle, a formula used to estimate the future duration of something which is unknown. On average the current point in time will be the midpoint, which means that the best estimate of the future duration of an entity is its past duration. Applying the principle to nations, the underlying assumption is that a longer past implicitly suggests a longer and less uncertain future, because a country that has endured through the years may be robust enough to continue existence longer than a newer country.

Upon analyzing 131 countries, the researchers found that the older nations scored higher on an index of environmental performance, and results remained significant when controlling for factors such as GDP and political stability. The researchers then conducted a study in a laboratory setting, manipulating how old the US seemed by comparing its starting point (1776) to a more recent landmark or an older landmark. Study participants who were led to believe that the US was an older country donated significantly more money to an environmental organization than participants who thought the US was a younger country.

The research suggests that framing a country as a longstanding entity may lead consumers to act in a more pro-environmental manner.

This paper will appear in a future issue of Psychological Science.

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Hal Hershfield in an Assistant Professor of Marketing.