Study: Men less likely to be eco-friendly when they feel unmanly

Sunday , January 21, 2018 - 12:00 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Make a list of everyday actions that benefit the planet. Recycling might come to mind. Or conserving water. Or driving less.

How about helping men feel manly?

Research co-authored by Aaron Brough, an associate professor of marketing at Utah State University, found males often reject eco-friendly behaviors and products because they want to feel masculine. There’s a pervasive “green-feminine stereotype” among both men and women — meaning men fear acting green will make them look less macho. 

“It’s kind of surprising that even though both men and women hold the green-feminine stereotype, it seems to only influence the behavior of men,” Brough said. “Women don’t seem as a concerned about behaving in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity.”

Past studies suggest that women are more likely to recycle, less likely to litter and have smaller carbon footprints. Brough and his co-researchers in marketing wanted to understand why.

“Prior research mostly attributed these behaviors and attitudes to personality differences between the sexes,” Brough said. “We thought that might not convey the whole story, there might be more to it.”

In a series of studies, they measured male and female participants’ responses to earth-friendly products and actions. Both genders perceived them as feminine. 

The researchers presented male study participants with gift cards. Some of the gift cards had floral designs with frilly fonts while others had an emoji with a joke about their age.

They asked the participants to imagine buying products like a lamp, a backpack and batteries. The participants were given a choice between green and conventional versions of the products. The men with the flowery gift cards with a perceived “gender threat” were far more likely to choose non-green products compared to those with gift cards quipping about their age. 

In another study, the researchers asked male and female participants to imagine donating to a nonprofit. One of the organizations was called “Friends of Nature,” branded with light colors, a tree logo and a filigree font. A second organization, “Wilderness Rangers,” had branding with dark colors, a howling wolf and bold font.

The men were more likely to donate to the more masculine “Wilderness Rangers” group, even though both organizations had similar green missions.

These attitudes about green behavior also seem to extend across some cultures. In another study, the researchers measured the reactions of men and women shoppers to a hybrid car at a BMW dealership in China. 

“We changed a word on their print ad from ‘eco-friendly’ to more a masculine word, which roughly translates to ‘protection,’” Brough said. “Men were significantly more likely to show interest (in the vehicle) after seeing the print ad with more the masculine term.”

Brough’s research notes that men tend to be more preoccupied with asserting their male identity because they face bigger consequences. Our society tends to be tougher on men who don’t act manly. 

“I’d expect this effect would be most pronounced in cultures with strong gender norms,” Brough said. “In countries where gender norms are less of an expectation or strongly enforced, I think you may see the effects become a little bit weaker.”

The study results could be useful in encouraging more earth friendly practices, including locally.

Alice Mulder, who directs Weber State University’s Sustainability Practices and Research Center, frequently works on programs to help students and the Northern Utah community become more environmentally aware. They helped locals buy discounted electric vehicles, for example, with their “Drive Electric Northern Utah” campaign. This spring, they’re partnering with other local groups to bring discounted electric lawnmowers to the region.

Mulder said she was surprised by Brough’s findings. 

“I feel good when I do the right thing in terms of recycling, trying to conserve, trying to promote sustainable activities,” she said. “My initial reaction (to the study) was ‘For real? This is a threat somehow?’”

With some reflection, however, she noted SPARC made an effort to show the community that electric vehicles still have power and reassure a more manly sense of identity.

“We wanted to make sure people knew this was not a weak kind of car to buy. In fact, although it’s not as tall as trucks, they actually have some pickup,” Mulder said. “We wanted people to know it wasn’t wimpy. I didn’t associate it with gender at the time.”

She noted, however, that she sees plenty of interest from men in sustainable practices and that her office works to encourage those behaviors across all gender spectrums.

Meanwhile, Dan Bedford, a geography professor at Weber State with a particular interest in educating the public about climate and human impacts on the environment, said he wasn’t surprised with the green gender gap. 

“I think that’s possibly because I’ve seen the work on the gender breakdown in terms of concern about climate change,” he said. “Obviously, environmental and sustainable practices are marketed as less appealing to the chest-thumping macho … You think about Dodge Rams, for example. Who does the narration of the adverts? And it’s always shown doing manly construction work or carrying big loads.”

Brough initially published his results in 2016 in the Journal of Consumer Research, but the research is making a buzz once again after a summary appeared in Scientific American late last month.

He said while some might find the his results troubling, most probably don’t find them surprising. 

“I think that’s what makes this study so powerful. I think most of this is subconscious,” he said. “I think most people are surprised to realize their behavior can be influenced so easily. Yet when the findings are explained to them, they nod and say, ‘Yeah, I can relate to that.’”

The ability of marketing to appeal to strong male gender identities isn’t a new concept. Brough pointed to campaigns by diet soda brands to appeal to more men.

Dr. Pepper Ten, for example, caused some irritation in 2011 with its tagline “not for women” and a video ad that said, “You can keep the romantic comedies and lady drinks."

There are plenty of other cases of marketing products in a way that’s meant to reassure men of their masculinity. It’s been done for body wash, yogurt and yoga, to name a few. 

It might be easy to look at Brough’s research as a disturbing way men reinforce their identity by acting against their self intertest, and the planet, too. Brough, however, sees things differently. To encourage sustainability, we only need to show men that eco-friendly actions can be manly, too.  

“I think a lot of people have expressed concern that men act this way,” Brough said. “But I see in a positive light. Just like any problem, the problem exists whether we want it to or not. The good news is there are ways to remedy it, to fix it.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×