Study on Environmentally Sustainable Behaviour

It has been demonstrated that young children take a strong moral stance towards protecting the natural environment (Kahn, 1999). But how do children and adolescents develop sensitivity for the need to protect the natural environment along with the ability to regulate their own behavior accordingly? This question of is of pressing importance. Yet, developmental psychology has very little to say about it.

             Research shows that teenagers in western industrialized societies become less engaged in sustainable behaviors such as energy and water conservation, waste reduction and recycling as they grow older (Krettenauer, 2017). This trend is paralleled and partly explained by decreases in feelings of connectedness with nature. While these findings provide a somewhat troubling view on the development of sustainable behaviour in youth, the research conducted so far is solely based on cross-sectional data that confound generational differences with developmental effects of age. Thus, what looks as a decline in adolescent sustainable behaviour with increasing age may also indicate an increased awareness for pro-environmental issues in younger birth cohorts. Because of this ambiguity, it is essential to run a longitudinal study that tracks individual development of sustainable behaviour over an extended period of time.

             We are currently running a longitudinal study investigating developmental change in sustainable behaviour from early to late adolescence by employing a time-sequential design. This study seeks to better understand the cognitive and emotional factors that account for the
decline in pro-environmental behaviors in adolescence, and makes it possible to study developmental change in sustainable behavior while taking potential time-of-measurement effects into account.
           The study involves asking teenagers how they feel about various environmentally sustainable topics, such as energy conservation, waste reduction, and recycling. In its totality, the study allows for the investigation of how adolescents' moral judgments, self- and other evaluative emotions, emotional affinity for nature as well as mechanisms of moral disengagement influence sustainable behaviour over time, and vice versa. It provides data for identifying different developmental trajectories of sustainable behaviour and for analyzing factors that suppress sustainable behaviour during the adolescent years versus factors that may counteract this tendency.


             Even though longitudinal studies are essential for studying development of sustainable behaviour they are time consuming and costly. Sample size is limited. Therefore, we are running a second major study to expand and complement the longitudinal data set. This cross-sectional expansion  includes two additional adult age groups as well as a comparison of rural and urban ecologies across Canada. The project allows us to investigate the generalizability and replicability of the longitudinal findings, increase the age range under study into adulthood and make it possible to gauge the influence of rural versus urban macro-systems on the development of sustainable behaviour.

             Taken together, both studies will greatly enhance our understanding of how sustainable behaviour develops from adolescence into adulthood. This knowledge is essential for societies to effectively promote sustainability behaviour in future generations.

Morality, Identity & Environmental Sustainability Research Group (MIE)

Wilfrid Laurier University

Room NC-117

66 Hickory Street West

Waterloo, ON, N2L 3C5 



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