Aiming for sustainability: how do feelings of collective guilt impact ecological friendliness?

Pensini, Pamela Maree (2012) Aiming for sustainability: how do feelings of collective guilt impact ecological friendliness? PhD thesis, James Cook University.

PDF (Thesis)
Download (2MB) | Preview
View at Publisher Website:


It has been widely acknowledged that the current consumption behaviours of developed nations cannot continue unchanged, and that steps toward sustainability are required to avoid destroying the biosphere beyond habitability. Ecological challenges can be conceptualised as an example of a commons dilemma, and as a social justice issue, as many groups that are innocent with respect to causing these challenges are predicted to experience great suffering as a result of the continuing actions of developed nations. The majority of research into ecological friendliness has focussed on contributions from the individual level of analysis; however, due to the intergroup nature of ecological harm, group behaviour can provide potent influences on the emotions and behaviour of ingroup members. Indeed, feelings of collective guilt may result when members of perpetrator groups acknowledge the immorality of their ingroup's actions, with these feelings motivating attempts at reparation. Indeed, this thesis investigated the application of feelings of collective guilt within the ecological domain in members of one developed nation, Australia, through seven studies.

With the first aim of demonstrating a preliminary relationship between, to avoid criterion contamination, general feelings of collective guilt and one aspect of ecological friendliness, Study 1 was conducted. This study demonstrated that general feelings of collective guilt were positively related to attitudes toward recycling; however, their relationship with reported recycling behaviour failed to reach significance. It was thus reasoned that, while general collective guilt feelings may be sufficient when considering ecologically-friendly attitudes, an assessment of ecologically-specific collective guilt would likely show a stronger relationship with ecological behaviour.

As ecological behaviour was reasoned to be cooperative as it generally costs the individual and benefits others, and, as feelings of collective guilt emerge from the acknowledgment of unjust harm doing to other groups, their origins were also reasoned to be cooperative. As a result, Study 2 tested a mediation model that feelings of ecologically-specific collective guilt would mediate the positive relationship that would be found between the tendency to make cooperative decisions involving the distribution of finite funds and the everyday ecologically-friendly behaviour individuals reported. Support was found for the cooperative origins of both ecologically-friendly behaviour as well as feelings of collective guilt. Feelings of ecologically-specific collective guilt, at least partially, mediated the relationship between cooperative decisions involving innocent others and ecologically-friendly behaviour.

Study 3 aimed to demonstrate the ecological validity of collective guilt feelings by demonstrating their increased presence in members of Environmentalist groups when compared to community groups not invested in the ecological domain, such as Performance Car Enthusiasts. This study also conducted similar comparisons between Older and Younger groups and assessed a host of other individual difference variables including tendencies to cooperate. This was in an attempt to provide some insight into both the causes of ecological friendliness as well as the motivations for membership in these groups. Indeed, evidence was found for the ecological validity of feelings of collective guilt in that they were reported more by the Environmentalist group members. They also exemplified greater cooperation, stronger social and personal norms regarding the environment, a more internal locus of control, and identified less with Australia than Performance Car Enthusiasts. Interestingly, young people engaged in less ecological behaviour, cooperated less, had a more external locus of control, and identified less with Australia, than did the older people. This study, once again, suggested that cooperation may be a key antecedent for the occurrence of ecological behaviour, with feelings of collective guilt emerging in some individuals.

Studies 4, 5 and 6 investigated the application of collective guilt feelings within terror management theory. As individual-level contributions to self-esteem have traditionally been investigated with the mortality salience hypothesis, Study 4 first sought to demonstrate that, just like individual environmentally-relevant self-esteem, feelings of ecologically-specific collective guilt would moderate the effects of mortality salience on ecological concern. Study 5 sought to separate the effects of these contributions to self-esteem (individual and group) by employing an ingroup privilege or outgroup disadvantage reminder. In what was reasoned to be due to a failure to sufficiently engage with the mortality prime, mortality salience effects were not found in either study and, as such, Study 6 was conducted utilising a modified procedure. For what appears to be the same reason, mortality salience effects were still not obtained. In congruence with the previous studies, subsequent investigation into the data gathered revealed the expected positive relationships between feelings of collective guilt and the ecologically-friendly dependent variables.

As the prior results were all conducted within a correlational framework, Study 7 aimed to demonstrate the causal role of collective guilt feelings in increasing ecological friendliness. A negative ingroup history reminder was found to increase green purchasing. Despite not showing an increase in explicit feelings of ecologically-specific collective guilt, it was reasoned that feelings of implicit collective guilt may account for this relationship. As limited investigation into the relationship between instances of ecological behaviour has been conducted, this study also provided a subsequent opportunity at ecological friendliness. As ingroup identification influences how group-relevant information is treated, any ecologically-friendly behaviour witnessed in those inclined toward ingroup glorification may be due to self-focussed efforts at regaining emotional homeostasis. As such, ecologically-friendly behaviour was not expected, or found, to be maintained in these individuals and, in fact, it declined. For precisely opposite reasons, those more critically attached to the ingroup demonstrated a positive relationship between instances of ecological behaviour in what appears an attempt toward outgroup cooperation.

In combination, these results demonstrate that feelings of collective guilt are positively related to ecological friendliness, and suggest that considering the intergroup nature of ecological harm as well as ingroup behaviour is important for understanding ecological friendliness. While feelings of collective guilt are an appropriate response for members of developed nations, the manner in which one identifies with the ingroup appears to have differential effects on the longevity of any ecological friendliness that may result. Despite any immediate effects of negative group-based emotions such as collective guilt, achieving sustainability and therefore intergroup justice appears a possibility only through outgroup cooperation.

Item ID: 40580
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: attitudes; Australia; climate change; collective guilt; community psychology; ecological friendliness; environment; environmental psychology; environmental responsibility; environmental sociology; environmentally sustainable; guilt; human ecology; identity; ingroup identification; ingroup; norms; recycling; social groups; social psychology; sustainability; sustainable
Related URLs:
Additional Information:

Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Chapter 6 (Study 1): Pensini, Pamela M., and Caltabiano, Nerina J. (2012) Collective guilt and attitudes toward recycling: data from a North Queensland sample. Journal of Tropical Psychology, 2. pp. 1-7.

Chapter 8 (Study 3): Pensini, Pamela M., Slugoski, Ben R., and Caltabiano, Nerina J. (2012) Predictors of environmental behaviour: a comparison of known groups. Management of Environmental Quality, 23 (5). pp. 536-545.

Date Deposited: 01 Oct 2015 02:38
FoR Codes: 17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1701 Psychology > 170113 Social and Community Psychology @ 33%
17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1701 Psychology > 170110 Psychological Methodology, Design and Analysis @ 34%
17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1701 Psychology > 170199 Psychology not elsewhere classified @ 33%
SEO Codes: 85 ENERGY > 8598 Environmentally Sustainable Energy Activities > 859899 Environmentally Sustainable Energy Activities not elsewhere classified @ 33%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9603 Climate and Climate Change > 960301 Climate Change Adaptation Measures @ 34%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences @ 33%
Downloads: Total: 231
Last 12 Months: 15
More Statistics

Actions (Repository Staff Only)

Item Control Page Item Control Page