Date of Award

Summer 6-9-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Ralph E. LaRossa, PhD

Second Advisor

Donald C. Reitzes, PhD

Third Advisor

Wendy S. Simonds, PhD


 The majority of Americans profess to hold pro-environmental attitudes and intend to engage in environmentally friendly behavior. Yet their actions tell a different story. The goal of this study was to explain the gap between widely held pro-environmental attitudes and the lack of corresponding individual and collective behavior. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods and applying the principles of grid-group cultural theory, cognitive sociology, and identity theory I examined the meanings people ascribe to the environment, how they think about behavior relative to the environment, and justifications for the performance of environmentally significant behavior.

I administered an on-line survey to a nationally representative sample of individuals. By applying grounded theory methods to the textual data generated by open-ended survey questions I developed a model of environmentally signficant behavior which describes the underlying factors that influence the performance of pro-environmental behavior. Individuals develop environmental socio-cognitive schemas based on the ways in which they use the six cognitive acts (perceiving, focusing, classifying, signifying, remembering, and timing) in thinking about the environment. They use these environmental socio-cognitive schemas to filter and interpret environmental discourse, construct a body of environmental knowledge, and guide environmentally significant behavior.

According to this study, the explanatory link between pro-environmental attitudes and pro-environmental behavior lies in the concept of proximity. Performance of pro-environmental behavior is driven by the distance individuals perceive themselves to be from environmental issues. Attitudes toward the environment remain abstractions whereas behavior is situational. Individuals from different cultural groups hold different ideas about the relationship between humans and nature, the extent and severity of environmental issues, and how those issues should be addressed.

The findings from this study provide a foundation for developing effective strategies for influencing environmentally significant behavior. This study is important because environmental issues are real, their potential impact is substantial, and time is of the essence in addressing them.

Included in

Sociology Commons