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Can compassion help save the environment?

How empathy relates to environmental concern, proenvironmental behavior and nature relatedness.
Amanda McIntyre & Robert Gifford

Now more than ever, humanity must work to protect the environment. To this end, environmental psychologists seek to understand how to increase environmental concern and proenvironmental behavior.

Dispositional Empathy. The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1983) measured various dimensions of dispositional empathy including empathic concern (the tendency to feel compassion and sympathy towards others in need), perspective-taking (the ability to spontaneously adopt another individuals point of view), and personal distress (self-oriented personal anxiety elicited when faced a distressed other). Nature relatedness. This construct reflects an individuals sense of connection to the natural world. The Nature Relatedness Scale (Nisbet, Zelenski, & Murphy, 2009) consists of items that measure affective, cognitive, and experiential aspects of relatedness. The overall scale was used as a measure of relatedness. Empathic Concern Perspective Taking Personal Distress
= .07

Table 1. Descriptive statistics. Variable Empathic concern Mean 3.87 3.68 2.63 5.51 6.07 5.27 10.62 3.50 SDs 0.79 0.65 0.62 1.21 .98 1.26 3.94 0.61 Scale Range 1-7 1-7 1-7 1-7 1-7 1-7 1-22 1-5 Perspective taking Personal distress Egoistic concern Altruistic concern Biospheric concern ProEnv behavior Nature relatedness

The current research sought to determine what role empathy plays in the development of proenvironmental attitudes, behaviors and traits. Empathy refers to an affective or cognitive response elicited by, and congruent with, the perceived welfare of someone or something else.
Social psychological research suggests that higher levels of state or trait empathy can positively influence attitudes towards stigmatized groups, increase prosocial behaviors and expand individuals self-concept to include others (see Baston, Chang, Orr & Rowland, 2002; Davis, 1983; Davis, 1994). The influence of empathy may extend beyond interpersonal relations, to transpersonal issues, such as the environment. Some evidence links increases in state empathy to increases in environmental concern and proenvironmental behavior (Berenguer, 2007; Schultz, 2000). The current research examined the role of dispositional empathy in predicting various environmentally relevant variables.

Altruistic Env. Concern

Adj R2 = 0.05*

Figure 1. Empathy significantly predicted 5% of the variance in altruistic concern. Empathy did not significantly predict egoistic (Adj R2 = -0.00, n.s.) or biospheric concern (Adj R2 = 0.25, n.s.).

Empathic Concern Perspective Taking Personal Distress

= .34***

Empathic Concern

Nature Relatedness

Perspective Taking
Personal Distress

= .24**

ProEnv. Behavior

Adj R2 = 0.13***

Figure 3. Empathy significantly predicted 13% of the variance in nature relatedness.

Adj R2 = 0.13***

Table 2. Correlations amoung variables. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 1 Empathic concern -Perspective taking .35** .23** Personal distress .49 Egoistic concern Altruistic concern .27** Biospheric concern .20 .29** ProEnv behavior Nature relatedness .23* 2 -.20 -.46 .14 .20* .33** .38** 3 4 5 6 7

To explore the relation between the various facets of dispositional empathy and environmental concern, proenvironmental behavior and nature relatedness.

Figure 2. Empathy significantly predicted 13% of the variance in proenvironmental behavior.

We expected higher levels of empathy (specifically empathic concern and perspective taking) to predict higher levels of altruistic and biospheric environmental concern, higher levels of proenvironmental behavior, and a greater sense of connectedness to nature. Higher levels of personal distress may predict higher levels of egoistic environmental concern.

Environmental concern. The Environmental Motives Scale (Schultz, 2000) consists of three subscales which measure egoistic concern (concern for the environment as it relates to the self), altruistic concern (concern for the environment as it relates to others) and biospheric concern (concern for the biosphere).
Proenvironmental behavior. Kaiser and Wilsons (2004) General Ecological Behavior scale was adapted and used to measure self-reported proenvironmental behavior.

Overall, some facets of empathy predict various environmentally relevant variables. Specifically, higher levels of compassion, or empathic concern, predict higher levels of altruistic environmental concern and engaging in a greater number of proenvironmental behaviors. An increase in the tendency to engage in cognitive role taking predicts greater sense of connection to the natural world and again predictive of more proenvironmental behavior. Given that empathy extends its influence beyond interpersonal relations to broader issues such as the environment, fostering both affective and cognitive aspects of empathy in individuals may be prudent. Specifically, environmental education programs may wish to incorporate activities that evoke empathic responses to nature and those suffering from environmental degradation, rather than relying on information-based programs that focus on increasing knowledge about the issue.

-.13 .11 .05 -.02 -.09

-.47** -.25** .39** --.02 .12 .45** --.08 .14 .60** .63**

Note: * p < .05, ** p < .01

Batson, C. D., Chang, J., Orr, R., & Rowland, J. (2002). Empathy, attitudes, and action: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group motivate one to help the group? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1656-1666. Berenguer, J. (2007). The effect of empathy in proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors. Environment and Behavior, 39, 269-283. Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark Publishers. Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126. Kaiser, F. G., & Wilson, M. (2004). Goal-directed conservation behavior: The specific composition of a general performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 36,1531-1544. Nisbet, E. K. L., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. (2009) The Nature Relatedness Scale: Linking individuals connection with nature to environmental concern and behavior. Environment and Behavior, 41, 715-740. Schultz, P. W. (2000). Empathizing with Nature: The effects of perspective taking on concern for environmental issues. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 391-406.

N = 125 undergraduate students from a mid-sized western Canadian university (73.6 % females, mean age = 21.1 years).

Participants completed all questionnaires online, in small groups in a computer testing room. The questionnaires were counterbalanced to control for order effects.

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