(Photo: a group of people waiting at a bus stop) Waiting on the Bus | Photo © gemenacom \ Fotolia

Waiting for the bus one morning on your way to work, you realize your reusable travel mug is at home. You’d rather not use another single-use plastic cup, but if you run back to grab it you’ll miss the next bus and be five minutes late for work.

Do you go back for your reusable container? Chances are, if you’re paid by the hour or view your time as money, you won’t sacrifice even five minutes to retrieve your travel mug.

That’s according to the latest research from the University of British Columbia. Psychology PhD student Ashley Whillans, lead author of the study published last week in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, told A/J that when people are hard-wired to believe every second counts in their hectic work lives, small, even routine environmental actions are quickly jettisoned.

Previous research shows that this economic mentality toward time reduces people’s interest in volunteering their time, Whillans said. But while volunteering can take a substantial time commitment, does the same time-as-money attitude change a person’s likelihood to recycle the newspaper after reading it? Or reuse Ziplock bags?

“People who have a chronic tendency to put a price tag on their time — individuals paid by the hour [who] often think about ways to maximize financial gain — were less likely to engage in environmental behaviours, even those who took a relatively minimal amount of time,” said Whillans.

Whillans and co-author Elizabeth Dunn organized a series of five studies within the larger experiment to analyze these questions. One study examined a British household survey measuring hourly wage status and environmental behaviour; another surveyed 184 UBC undergraduates on the worthwhileness of basic environmental activities like turning a car off instead of idling; another recruited 188 participants at a Vancouver market and posed the “Would you sacrifice five minutes to get your travel mug?” questions asked above.

People who have a chronic tendency to put a price tag on their time were less likely to engage in environmental behaviours.

Yet another study Whillans and Dunn conducted gave participants the opportunity to recycle pieces of scrap paper used in an experiment in a recycling bin located in the hallway; meanwhile, a garbage bin was placed inside the room.

“Our measure of environmental behavior was whether participants chose to walk a few extra feet to recycle their scrap paper,” the authors write in the report. “It only took participants three seconds longer to recycle compared to throwing out the scrap paper.”

The result? Participants in the group explicitly thinking of their time as money were five times less likely to use even a few seconds to perform a basic environmental action.

Whillans told A/J that the participants hadn’t been told how long it would take to reach the recycling bin — simply that it was in the hallway. “Participants might have thought it was 12 seconds or a minute away but they didn’t want to bother even trying to find the recycling bin,” she said. “This was a striking finding.”

Performing helpful, charitable tasks shows a basic focus on “the other,” be that another person, a community or the Earth as a whole. And while placing a premium on the economic earning potential of our time may be good on a personal level, this self-interest takes a toll on our willingness to be helpful more broadly. Our interest in volunteering takes a hit, as do our tendencies toward charitable and social work.

However, environmental behaviours are different, Whillans believes. Donating to charity will likely net you a tax refund, while helping a friend move could earn you free pizza (and a sore back). Yet when we hang our clothes to dry on the line instead of using a dryer or switch from paper to electronic billing, there is an environmental benefit, though it often feels far removed. This time-as-money mindset, coupled with a feeling of distance between action and recognition, tends to discourage people — even those who prioritize environmental activities in their lives — from behaving in environmentally friendly ways.

What’s to be done? If you’re the head of a company, try to minimize the extent to which employees feel every minute of their day is on the clock, Whillans said. Workers will be more inclined to do right by the environment if they feel their work lives account for such behaviours and don’t punish them for it. Office design is also key — make recycling bins or water coolers readily available and people will likely use them over less sustainable options.

“Make environmental choices the default,” Whillans said.

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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