New research links learned helplessness with environmental inaction

Concern for the environment is widespread, but what is stopping people from rolling their sleeves up and getting down to work with some meaningful pro-environmental action? According to a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, learned helplessness could be acting as a significant barrier to affecting positive environmental change.

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition where an individual has learned to behave in a helpless manner, after repeatedly feeling like they have no control over a situation.

The researchers measured self-reports of concern for the environment, along with different measures of pro-environmental actions: They asked about self-reported conservation behaviours like recycling, and turning lights off. Because individuals may inflate their own reporting of these behaviours, researchers also measured real-time behaviours. At the end of the survey participants were given the option to keep or to donate the $5 they were paid for the study to a well-known environmental organization. Participants were also given the opportunity to sign up to join a fictitious on-campus environmental student organization.

The study found that learned helplessness acted as a barrier to these pro-environmental behaviours. Specifically, if someone is concerned about the environment, they are still less likely to take action if they are experiencing learned helplessness.

“It’s a significant finding because researchers often view environmental concern as being an important predictor of taking action. However, the scope of the environmental problems we are currently facing are so vast that individual behaviours like recycling become almost meaningless. If people feel helpless to make meaningful contributions to environmental quality, it appears they may be much less likely to engage in these positive behaviours, even if they are very concerned about the environment,” said Dr. Arnocky.

The study, available here, is published in the February 2018 edition of the Journal of Environmental Psychology. It was conducted by Nipissing University Master of Science in Environmental Studies student Nicholas Landry; with Dr. Robert Gifford, Professor of psychology at University of Victoria; Taciano Milfont, Associate Professor of psychology at Victoria University of Wellington; Dr. Andrew Weeks, Associate Professor of psychology at Nipissing; and Dr. Steven Arnocky, Associate Professor of psychology at Nipissing.

The research was funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada held by Principle Investigator Dr. Arnocky, with Dr. Gifford and Dr. Milfont.

ResearchPsychology Department