Environmentalism Is Sexy, According To New Research

Pro-environmental attitudes are viewed as sexy by women and men.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 31, 2021

A new study published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that going out of one's way to be environmentally conscious has unintended positive consequences, like being judged more favorably by potential romantic partners.

"Previous research shows that prosocial behavior such as altruism is important in mate choice," say the authors of the research, led by Daniel Farrelly of the University of Worcester and Manpal Bhogal of the University of Wolverhampton. "Here, across two experiments, we successfully show that engaging in pro-environmental behaviors can increase one's desirability in the mating market and that people display a motivation to engage in pro-environmental behaviors in the presence of attractive, opposite-sex targets."

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers first recruited 157 heterosexual adults from the United Kingdom to participate in an online study. In the study, participants were presented with a series of hypothetical scenarios describing the behavior of a potential romantic partner. Some of the scenarios depicted the romantic partner as environmentally conscious (for example, "Person A always sorts through their household/everyday waste so that it can be recycled and re-used. Even though it is time-consuming, they believe it is a useful thing to do"), some of the scenarios depicted the partner as not environmentally conscious (e.g., "When buying drinks, Person B always buys disposable coffee cups, and bottles of water which they do not re-use"), and other scenarios were neutral (e.g., "Person A goes for lunch in a local restaurant. They chose to have a chicken burger"). They then asked participants to rate how desirable the person in each scenario would be for a short-term and long-term relationship.

They found that men and women were more attracted to partners who displayed environmentally conscious behaviors, especially for long-term relationships. This, according to the researchers, is consistent with prior research demonstrating the desirability of prosocial behavior in mate choice.

Next, the researchers conducted a follow-up study in which they asked 307 heterosexual adults to imagine they were approached by an individual running a sustainability survey and were asked to respond to the following question: "How often do you spend the time and effort to prepare household waste for recycling (e.g. cleaning plastic bottles and tinned cans or sorting paper and cardboard)?" (1 = never; 5 = always). Importantly, the individual running the survey was presented to participants in a photo as either an attractive woman or an attractive man.

They found that participants reported a higher degree of care in their recycling habits in the presence of an attractive member of the opposite sex, suggesting that individuals prefer to be perceived as environmentally friendly around potential mates.

"We show that prosociality, in the form of pro-environmental behaviors, can have an adaptive role in romantic relationships," say the researchers. "It signals care for the environment and good character which are important when choosing partners. This engagement in pro-environmental behaviors could also signal care for future offspring, as environmental behavior increases the chances of a better world for ourselves and for future generations."

While pro-environmental behaviors are generally viewed favorably by members of the opposite sex, there may be situations where such signaling is ineffective or even counterproductive.

"Although we didn't find it here, it is often the case that helpful behaviors are actually rated less desirable for short-term relationships (e.g. flings, one-night stands), so it could be the case too with certain pro-environmental behaviors," say the researchers. "Also, if there are any societies where there is not a social norm to behave in a way that helps the environment, then we would expect their pro-environmental behaviors to be less desirable. This is because in those cases, pro-environmental behavior would not be seen as a positive, helping behavior. Fortunately, most societies are not like this, and actually, pro-environmental behavior is becoming an increasingly important social norm."

A full interview with Dr. Daniel Farrelly and Dr. Manpal Bhogal discussing this research can be found here: Is it attractive to care about the environment?