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Project 7: Group Norms, Intrinsic Motivation and Sustainable Energy Consumption

Challenge 11: Identity Flexibility and Sustainable Cooperation

Aim of the project

To examine whether more sustainable and cooperative patterns of energy consumption can be driven by group concerns that are internally and/or intrinsically motivated

transcending the need to impose (socially and economically) costly forms of incentives or surveillance.

Theoretical background

Wasteful energy consumption can be beneficial for individual consumers, but threaten environmental sustainability. Promoting sustainable energy use is a key challenge in current societies. Often external systems of incentive or sanction are implemented to ensure that people adopt consumption patterns that serve the collective good in the longer term. However these often require costly surveillance and sanction systems to ensure prosocial behavior. A solution resides in developing personal norms that are intrinsically motivated (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and do not require external regulation. However, one problem is how to bring about this change in intrinsic motivation and behavior, especially as the personal interests and habits that feed into the social dilemma are unlikely to change spontaneously. One obvious bridge to the collective level is the group itself, but this is typically seen as external to self and thus beyond self-regulation. Self-categorization theory (Turner, 1991) is relevant here because it proposes that group identity can form a part of self, for whom adopting group norms reflects an internal process rather than one that is externally imposed. But key problems remain. First, group norms cannot be assumed to operate for the greater collective good. Being a member of a motorcycle club may go against environmental concerns, and nations may eschew international climate accords. Second, despite recent attempts to integrate intrinsic motivation with (pro) social identities (Thomas, Amiot & Lewis, 2017), questions arise about whether group motivated behavior is “intrinsic” in the sense of implicating a (universal) moral injunction, or rather simply internal (reflecting group importance; Milovanovic, 2018). This distinction is not clear in self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Moreover injunctive norms can even be experienced as imposed and “external” rather than emanating from within (Milovanovic, 2018). Thus moving to the group level is not a panacea that the resolves the social dilemma between individual and collective interests, and our analyses need to take into account a “thee cornered” contest between individual interests and motives, intrinsic motivation and group interests and motives (which may conflict with the intrinsic/moral dimension: spillover). In short, trying to escape externalised behavior regulation (incentives, surveillance, etc.) by moving to the group level raises new questions: namely 1) To what extent are group norms in the broader collective interest; 2) To what extent do such norms reflect internal rather than intrinsic internal motivations, that weaken or even cut across the moral dimensions guiding behavior, and 3) Under what conditions might group identities and norms become intrinsically as well as internally motivated.

Research design

This project will develop and test theory integrating intrinsic motivation with internal motivation associated with group membership, and combine laboratory experiments, field studies and philosophical analyses. The philosophical literature on intrinsic values will be used to give further content to the notion of intrinsic motivation. In lab studies we will study the conditions under which membership of certain groups promote sustainable energy behavior that is linked to individual costs (e.g., reduced comfort), creating a social dilemma. Level of identification with the group, identity content, group norms, group values, the extent to which choices are voluntarily made, and the visibility of the behavior will be measured or manipulated. Field studies among members (vs. non-members) of local renewable energy initiatives will test effects of strategies to strengthen group identification and group norms of sustainable consumption (the key outcome). A further factor concerns the relation between group identification and autonomy: group identification can be either supportive of or detrimental to self-determination (autonomous decision-making is valuable in itself). Normative analysis will be used to shed light on the impact it has on the moral quality of the choices people make.


Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Milovanovic, M. (2018). PhD Dissertation, RuG.

Thomas, E., Amiot, C.E., & Louis, W.R., & Goddard, A. (2017). Collective self-determination: how the agent of help promotes pride, well-being, and support for intergroup helping, Personality and Soc Psych. Bulletin, 43, 662-677.

Turner, J.C. (1991). Social influence. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Project initiators

Linda Steg (Social Psychology), Russell Spears, (Social Psychology) Frank Hindriks (Philosophy);


University of Groningen, Department of Social Psychology


Social Psychology and Philosophy

How to Apply

For background information on this vacancy and further instructions, click here.

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