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'Cognitive dissonance' and climate change: Why some people stop using plastic straws but buy a new car

We know climate change is a serious issue but don’t practise sustainable behaviour all the time. CNA explores the mental hurdles possibly standing in the way.

'Cognitive dissonance' and climate change: Why some people stop using plastic straws but buy a new car

Rubbish bin at an HDB void deck in May 2021. (File photo: iStock/Kandl)

SINGAPORE: You take pains to tote around reusable crockery and cutlery in the name of sustainability, but bemoan getting anywhere by public transport. 

You believe in not having air-conditioning at home, but have no qualms about double-bagging your groceries at the supermarket.

You remind yourself to always turn off the lights when not in use, but think nothing about ordering food in plastic and styrofoam takeaway containers - thrice a week.

This seemingly contradictory behaviour, where one does their part for climate change yet draws the line at certain actions, is more common than expected.

The CNA programme Who Cares About Polar Bears?, which aired in November 2022, examined the cognitive dissonance that hinders individuals from being consistent in working towards a greener planet.

Consider what Dr Samuel Chng from the Singapore University of Technology and Design describes as a common phenomenon - of young, idealistic “pro-environment” individuals insisting they will never own a car, only to go back on their word a few years later.

The turning point? When they start working, earning money and placing greater value on convenience, time, comfort and social status, said the head of the urban psychology lab at the university’s Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. 

“Once you want the lifestyle, that’s where the cognitive dissonance comes in. Something has to go, and typically, it’s your belief that goes. You change it and you explain it away,” explained Dr Chng.

“And that’s where people (experience) this 'moral licensing' (by) doing a small action. Like, I’m going to stop using plastic straws, but guess what, I’m going to consume and buy a new car.” 

In August last year, an OCBC Climate Index found that most Singaporeans surveyed were still not embracing many sustainable behaviours despite being aware of environmental issues. This was also reflected in the previous year’s findings.


Experts highlighted to CNA one perhaps uniquely Singaporean reason for inconsistent behaviour around sustainability issues: That the Government will take care of it.

With this mindset, when it comes to global or national crises, one might ask “why should the individual be taking charge”, said Dr Chng, noting that Singapore typically ranks highly on indicators or barometers of trust in the Government.

“We really have this optimism that things will be done, things will be planned and someone is actively looking at it. That is true, but all this serves to weaken people’s intention,” he added. 

People should be “more in charge of their own life and be more willing to actually contribute rather than to wait for someone to tell them to do something”. 

But Dr Marvin Montefrio, who studies the political and sociological aspects of climate change, said reliance on state action could be welcome from a perspective of desiring systemic change.

“(It would be) troubling if the state is unresponsive, so (people) see opportunities if you're able to kind of sway the Government," said the associate professor of social science (environmental studies) at Yale-NUS College.

There is also a willingness to allow "particular government policies to seep in to control their particular behaviours”, added Dr Montefrio. 

“For example, if the Government would force them to reduce energy consumption, there's a lot more of that willingness than something that is associated with taxation. 

"The bigger question is how does this actually translate to actual action on the ground.”


Some have argued that the most effective way to encourage sustainable habits - and at a consistent level - is through rewards or incentives. But experts are divided on the benefits of such an approach.

Some companies engage in “reward bundling” to get customers to go green. Coffee maker Nespresso, for one, holds lucky draws for customers who recycle their used coffee pods. Their reward is a prize made from recycled items. 

The company discovered that the volume of coffee pods recycled remained the same even if no lucky draw was held, suggesting that customers had internalised the habit. 

“The reward bundling idea is interesting because in a way it could relate to the matter of sunk costs," said Dr Denise Dillon, associate professor of psychology at James Cook University (Singapore). 

"If I want a reward and the way to gain the reward involves a number of steps, I might feel like I’ve committed myself sufficiently that the only way forward is to continue.

“It’s a foot-in-the-door approach whereby making a small commitment can lead to larger and more involved commitments further down the track.” 

But SUTD's Dr Chng questioned if companies were deploying such incentives for sustainability or business, and argued that they could be seen as greenwashing to an extent while getting consumers to consume even more.

“If we asked people how many reusable tote bags they have, (the answer is probably) plenty. Because everyone is giving them out," he explained.

"But if it’s just used as a marketing tool to get you into the shop or get you to purchase a certain amount, is it really for sustainability? Do the bags even come from a sustainable source?

“As a society, we have to move beyond monetary incentives.”

Experts said the key to this lies in establishing stronger social norms based on the “in-group out-group” theory. An in-group is a social group to which an individual psychologically identifies as being a member, while an out-group is a social group with which they do not identify.

“Research suggests that people who feel an affiliation with a group are more likely to cooperate in environmental decisions," said Dr Dillon.

“(But) if we perceive any form of risk to ourselves from acting, it’s also likely we will avoid taking that step. Risks could be in the form of financial cost, physical exertion, social stigma such as being singled out by others as odd, emotional exertion, or taking up too much time.” 

Figuring out the “tipping point” then becomes crucial, said Dr Chng.  

“What is a big enough group such that it applies that pressure (on) people to join the other side? I think that's something that we need to kind of investigate.”



In attempting to better understand inconsistent thinking around sustainability issues, a useful model is that of the intention-behaviour gap - or simply put, when intention doesn't always translate into action.

This gap can go up to 75 per cent, by Dr Chng's estimate, which means only one in four people who say they will do something actually do it.

But there is another gap, earlier in one’s thought process, where only say 50 per cent of people make the leap from attitude to having the intention to act.

Compound this with the intention-behaviour gap and you end up with only a very small percentage of people whose actions align with their attitude, said Dr Chng.

Additionally, people are more likely to act if something is “in their face”, said Dr Dillon.

This phenomenon, known as construal level theory, refers to psychological distance with self as the referral point.

It can be further broken down into temporal distance (whether an event is in the past, present or future); spatial distance (how close a location is); social distance (how well we know people who share perspectives); and hypothetical distance (how likely something is to happen). 

Essentially, if we hear about climate events that occur far away from us or that have affected unknown people, it’s difficult to recognise it as an issue requiring immediate action by ourselves, Dr Dillon noted.

Even if we do recognise the need to take action, it remains too abstract to understand exactly what actions - collectively or individually - are required, to avoid this ambiguous threat.  

People are thus more likely to act if something happens closer to home and which we’re able to witness firsthand, as well as perceive that something could happen to us here and now, she said.

With Singapore, a major indicator that people draw on is the weather - and its relative predictability might mask warning signs. 

“Since our place in the tropics - and close to the equator - has us experiencing hot weather most of the time, that is not a clear enough indication that we need to act," said Dr Dillon. 

Climate change reports also tend to discuss what will happen to Earth in hundreds of years, Dr Chng pointed out. “That is something that people find very difficult to engage in. And this isn’t just for sustainability – people just find it very difficult to think about the future,” he said. 

“If you're telling people that (climate change) is going to happen in 50 years' time, maybe (they’ll care). If you're telling someone in their 70s, probably not, but if you're telling someone in their 20s to 30s, they (will realise) that's going to happen within their lifetime.”


This psychological distance from climate change could also ultimately lead to individuals feeling a lack of control.

They may believe that they are just one of eight billion people, and hence cannot influence or contribute to the gargantuan issue at hand, suggested Dr Chng.

And so, even as they are aware of and attempt to practise sustainability in one aspect of life, they may remain wasteful in others.

The perception is that "we don't see an obvious way forward that’s within the scope of our own control, we won’t go out of our way to act”, added Dr Dillon. 

This is where the high level of trust in Singapore's Government may then come into play, where individuals would rather wait for directives than make changes on their own. 

Still, there is strength in numbers via social norms, the experts reiterated.

"What do your neighbours do, what do your peers in the office do, what does your organisation do? All this helps to reinforce or challenge some of what you think is correct behaviour," said Dr Chng.

"All this collectively will shape someone’s attitude and then, for example, (make them think) maybe they should reduce plastic use."

This begs the question - is Singapore really the collectivist society that it is often seen to be? 

Dr Chng said it could be that Singaporeans are "actually quite individualistic" in contrast to people in other countries, who appear more willing to make lifestyle changes for the greater good.

The thinking, he explained, is "why would I want to sacrifice the plastic bag that I use from NTUC for my trash bin for the environment?"

"It’s my own purpose first – if I can take care of myself, take care of my family, then I can take care of someone else.”

It doesn’t mean such individuals will reject sustainable behaviour altogether. After all, the 2022 OCBC Climate Index found that respondents who did embrace such habits were motivated not by the environment but by personal practical benefits such as health, cost and convenience.

"We want comfort, we want air-conditioning," said Dr Chng. "What we value in our hierarchy of needs and desires is quite different."

Source: CNA/gy(jo)


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