By Anli Chen
Climate change is an urgent global issue that requires collective effort from organizations and individuals alike to overcome. Carbon offsets, while an imperfect solution, are one of the most high-impact and low-barrier ways every individual can contribute. Yet, they are relatively unknown and extremely underutilized. My behavioral economics thesis tackles that challenge to both concretely engage the public and expand academic understanding of people’s motivations to offset.
What kind of behavioral interventions makes someone most likely to offset? And is such offsetting behavior linked to one’s belief about climate change and/or offsetting-related social norms?
I run a large-scale field experiment in which students across 33 universities can donate to offset their holiday travel. Taking inspiration from existing research about using nudges and frames to encourage various socially beneficial behaviors, I examine whether carbon offsetting can similarly be encouraged via two mechanisms (both individually and interacted with each other):
- Observability: Research indicates that social-focused interventions that appeal to one’s desire to uphold a good reputation and fit in with social norms can be effective in changing behaviors. Thus, I evaluate whether participants were more likely to donate if their donation was made observable to others through complementary laptop stickers I designed that donors could “display to show their community their support for the cause”.
- Framing: In addition to the emissions reduction, the carbon offset project that would receive the donations had several “co-benefits”. I tested whether framing the project to highlight a human-focused co-benefit (e.g. reducing rates of respiratory illness) impacted donation rates differently relative to a nature focused co-benefit (e.g. reducing deforestation).
Picture of the two sticker designs (tailored to highlight either the nature or human frame) below!
I then conduct a follow-up Mechanical Turk survey on a different population to add nuance and test the generalizability of my results. Here, I ask:
- How does the effect of different levels of observability vary on offsetting?
- What relationship does offsetting have with participants’ beliefs about social norms (e.g. how popular they think offsetting is), as well as their attitudes about climate change?
Key Findings & Implications:
In my field experiment, I find that among 701 participants, 152 donors, and over $500 raised, the sticker does indeed significantly increase offsetting by 9%. Conversely, different frames did not significantly affect behavior.
My MTurk survey provided further support that observability matters, that it is tied to a desire to maintain or improve one’s reputation, and that – at least for my study participants – social norms matter more than how much one says they care about the environment: social norm beliefs were a stronger predictor of donations than one’s attitudes about climate change.
Overall, my thesis provides further insight on how to apply behavioral strategies to promote pro-environmental actions in real world contexts, as well as how and why such interventions – and associated beliefs and attitudes – can work to help our planet.