Can a Sustainable Lifestyle Make People More Desirable?

New research indicates that people practice “greenwashing” to attract potential long-term partners.

Girl is holding mesh shopping bag with vegetables without plastic bags at grocery shop.
Anastasia Gubinskaya / Getty Images

Caring for the environment can help both men and women become more desirable in the eyes of potential romantic partners, according to a new scientific study.

The research by two United Kingdom-based scientists was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences earlier this month. It is based on two experiments through which the authors tried to find out if pro-environmental behaviors such as recycling, using reusable drink containers, buying an electric car, or reducing paper waste can help people attract romantic partners.

“We successfully show that engaging in pro-environmental behaviors can increase one’s desirability in the mating market and that people display a motivation to engage in pro-environmental behaviors in the presence of attractive, opposite-sex targets,” the study says.

To reach that conclusion, the researchers carried out two experiments with 464 participants. The goal of the experiments was to find out if “both men and women find pro-environmental behaviors desirable, particularly for more long-term relationships” and if “men and women report engaging in pro-environmental behaviors more in the presence of potential mates.”

Study authors Daniel Farrelly (a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Worcester) and Manpal Singh Bhogalb (a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton) discussed their research with Treehugger.

Treehugger: How would you summarize the findings of your study?

Daniel Farrelly and Manpal Singh Bhogalb: Our research shows that men and women find pro-environmental behaviors desirable in long-term romantic partners, but also that people are more likely to report engaging in such behaviors in the presence of potential partners. From this, we conclude that, as with other altruistic behaviors, pro-environmental behaviors have an important and positive role in mate choice.

Do you think people are more attracted to others who follow a sustainable lifestyle because people are increasingly more concerned about the environment?

Yes, but probably only partially or indirectly. We believe that pro-environmental behaviors signal desirable psychological traits such as kindness, which are important in long-term partnerships and when it comes to looking after offspring. However, this is because of the positive view we have of pro-environmentalism socially, and it will certainly be more important for individuals who themselves value pro-environmentalism highly. 

Why did you decide to investigate whether having a pro-environmental lifestyle can be perceived as "desirable"?

As psychologists, we are interested in how social forces can affect our behavior, and in particular altruistic behaviors such as kindness or helping others. Our previous research found that altruistic behaviors are viewed very positively in potential long-term romantic partners and that men and women often display altruistic behaviors in the presence of potential partners. 

Such behaviors indicate that an individual has the psychological characteristics that will make them good partners and potentially good parents. As a result, we have evolved to value such traits as very important when it comes to choosing mates.

We wanted to explore pro-environmentalism because it is certainly an altruistic behavior. For example, individuals incur a cost — such as purchasing more expensive sustainable products or time spent organizing household recycling, or carrying around reusable coffee cups — to benefit others in society, both locally and globally. 

The study also found that both men and women try to show pro-environmental behaviors in order to attract possible romantic partners. Why do you think that is? Could that be considered a form of "greenwashing"? 

We think this is certainly a possibility. People know the social desirability of being green, so when they are in a social scenario (for example, being observed by potential romantic partners) they may report greater engagement in such behaviors. This can of course be dishonest, which is why it is important to make sure that true “greenness” is honest. This has strong parallels with the animal kingdom, where valuable and desirable traits are “costly” signals of an individual’s quality, which others recognize as being honest signals that cannot be achieved by lower-quality individuals. The tails of peacocks are a classic example of this, only the very highest quality peacocks can afford the costs of huge tails, which is something that peahens are very aware of, and so choose those longer tailed peacocks to mate with more often! It is therefore very important to see how “green” behaviors really are, rather than just what people report engaging in.

Your study focuses on people searching for a long-term relationship but would you say that your findings also apply to people looking for a fling? 

As has been consistently shown, altruistic traits are only desirable for long-term relationships and this is also the case for pro-environmentalism. This is because the traits it signals are only important for such relationships, where compatibility and also shared offspring care are important. So when it comes to short-term flings, such traits are not really important, and in fact, there is some evidence that they reduce desirability!

For the two experiments you conducted you recruited heterosexual participants, would you say that your findings also apply to the LGBTQ community?

Yes, we believe so, and this is certainly a follow-up study we would like to conduct.

Do you think the findings of your study could be used to encourage people to lead more sustainable lifestyles?

That is what we eventually hope for. We think findings such as this help push forward a view that is growing in society, that being green is the right thing to do and to promote to certain groups in society how they can indirectly benefit from engaging in pro-environmental behaviors (through enhanced reputations and better love life).

Are you planning to carry out further research on this topic? 

We are hoping to follow this up by looking into whether actual pro-environmental behaviors influence real-life mating scenarios. We also want to explore how other social influences can increase people’s green behaviors, and ultimately how this can translate into successful interventions and policies that can help promote sustainable lifestyle choices.

View Article Sources
  1. Farrelly, Daniel, and Manpal Singh Bhogal. "The Value of Pro-Environmental Behaviour in Mate Choice." Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 179, 2021, p. 110964., doi:10.1016/j.paid.2021.110964