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Psychologist Linda Steg awarded Stevin Prize

Environmental researcher, not an activist

She was already one of the most influential psychologists in the world, but now environmental psychologist Linda Steg has been awarded the Stevin Prize (of 2.5 million euros) for her research into environmentally aware behaviour. ‘I can’t be an activist. Not if I want to be a scientist.’
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Door Christien Boomsma

19 June om 9:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
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By Christien Boomsma

June 19 at 9:00 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.
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Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

Here’s what she won’t tell us: whether she owns a car. Whether she gets on a plane to go on holiday. Or whether she’s a vegetarian, since that’s better for the environment. ‘I don’t answer questions like that’, says environmental psychologist Linda Steg. 

That’s kind of remarkable, really. After all, Steg is the woman who put environmental psychology on the map. She is the woman who wants to know why people act like they’re environmentally conscious, but aren’t really. The woman who was first author on a ground-breaking report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on the effect of the earth warming up by 1.5 degrees Celsius. The woman who was on the list of the world’s most influential scientific minds no fewer than five times. 

And now, the woman who’s been awarded one of research financier NWO’s two 2020 Stevin Prizes:  2.5 million euros, which she’s free to spend on research or knowledge sharing. 


‘Journalists always ask me that’, she says, referring to the questions about owning a car or flying. ‘But I try not to answer questions like that. It’s not about me and if I say whether or not I own a car, participants in our research might be influenced by me.’

If you do this to save the environment, it’ll influence your research

It wouldn’t have mattered if she were, say, an astronomer, she says. But in her research, she works with questionnaires, among other things, and it’s real people that fill those out. People who might think that because she isn’t doing anything for the environment, it’s their job to tell her what she should do.

Or conversely, they think something is okay just because she does it. Before you know it, her results are compromised, something she wants to avoid at all costs.

She tries to be purely scientific. It might not be an obvious choice for her, since her field is all about the environment and behaviour that takes the climate into account. ‘You can’t be an activist in science’, she says. ‘If you do it to save the environment, it’ll influence your research. You know what you want the results to be. But you have to stay objective.’

Environmentally aware

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a deep, abiding love for her job. She loves the puzzle she’s solving, piece by piece, about environmentally aware behaviour. Why some people (or rather, loads of people) are prepared to get tired by biking through the rain, just because driving is bad for the environment. Why some people decide to buy the more expensive cucumber because it is organic. 

But becoming an environmental psychologist wasn’t even a deliberate choice she made. She kind of got started by accident, when she took a class in environmental psychology by then-professor Charles Vlek. ‘He set it up’, she explains. ‘I was part of the first group of students in the field.’

It did something to her, she says. Thinking about the environment and environmentally aware behaviour had been more of a top-down approach for years. It was more concerned with technology, regulations, and information campaigns. ‘The issues were different back then as well’, she says. ‘In the eighties and nineties, we were mainly worried about running out of resources.’ 


Vlek’s classes made her realise how important human actions were to the discussion. ‘Environmentally friendly decisions usually lead to discomfort’, she explains. ‘People are doing something that’s not directly in their interest, but in service of something bigger than them. Why? How does that process work?’ It’s an extremely complicated issue, she says, with enormous social implications. 

Why do people do things that aren’t directly in their interest?

It fascinated her. ‘A lot of people feel they have to choose between science and social relevance’, says Steg. ‘But you can easily do both. That’s what’s so great about this!’

It’s no surprise that she worked for the Netherlands Institute for Social Research. Her close connection to the practical field means her research always focuses on relevant issues. She doesn’t do small-scale research: she’s looking for larger motivations and principles.

Climate change denial

Now that the effects of global warming are becoming increasingly apparent, she has her work cut out for her. Practically no one will deny that it’s getting hotter. ‘People tend to think that a lot of people deny climate change, but that’s not true’, she says. ‘In Europe, it’s only 2 percent of the entire population.’ 

As a society, we have to do something about it. But what can we do? ‘That’, says Linda Steg the scientist, ‘is not my job.’ Her job is to provide society, politics, and the UN with information. ‘To tell them how people feel about the earth heating up by 1.5 degrees Celsius, for example. Or how they’re responding to the downpours, droughts, and heat stress in our future.’  

‘Maybe we should all move into tiny houses, stop eating meat, stop travelling. If you don’t want to do any of that, you can also try to capture CO2. But who wants to store CO2 in their backyard? Even if you don’t care about any of that, you have to do something about the droughts and the global warming. In all cases, the behavioural question is: What do people want? How can we create support?’ 

Hedonistic motives

To figure that out, you need to know why people display environmentally conscious behaviour. Are they motivated by the environment? Is it altruism? Are their motives hedonistic? Or selfish? The former two are about concern for others, the latter two about concern for yourself. Steg knows that if you want to garner support and develop measures that people will accept, you have to take into account what’s important to them. Is a community invested in environmental values? Emphasise environmental benefits. Is someone concerned about a loss of income? Explain to them the economic consequences. 

People have to believe that their sacrifice has meaning. 

If you do this, you’ll find people willing to change their behaviour, she says. But you do need to make them feel that the burden is shared equally. And they have to believe that their sacrifice has meaning. Politicians don’t always seem to realise this, she says. 

‘Take the Yellow Vest movement. It seems as though they’re against measures to save the environment. But if you listen closely, they’re complaining about the inequality of it. They feel they’re carrying too much of the burden.’

She recently studied whether people who are invested in the environment display more sustainable behaviour if the companies they work for do the same. ‘I thought they would only need a little push.’

Alas. In fact, it turned out that people who didn’t care about the environment all that much were more willing to change their behaviour.

2.5 million

It was an incredibly interesting conclusion, and an incredibly relevant one, as well. The social impact that companies have on sustainability is larger than initially thought. 

And now she has 2.5 million to spend. She didn’t even have to write a research proposal. She’s already come up with several ideas. To start: so far, her research has only focused on Europeans. She’d like to find out how people feel in other countries.

‘I’d like to figure out how to integrate social-scientific research into the climate models, to help us estimate whether the current scenarios to decrease global warming are socially feasible.’

Translation by Sarah van Steenderen


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