By Phillip Poupore —
This is just one of the many examples of what results from people improperly disposing of trash. Photo by Phillip Poupore.
Joshua Rottman’s studies of moral psychology say that to protect the environment people must be forced to face both the harm littering causes as well as the general sanctity of the environment.
In his study “Hindering Harm and Preserving Purity: How Can Moral Psychology Save the Planet?”, he concludes that people are generally motivated to protect others from being hurt or destroyed, so if litterbugs are confronted with the outcome of trashing the environment than they may strive to change their tendencies.
“It seems the reason people litter is not because they think it’s okay,” said Rottman, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College. “But it’s because they think it’s the easy thing to do. It’s a moral hypocrisy. People think it’s wrong, but they do it because it’s easy.”
Numerous studies have delved into the types of items people litter, as well as where and when individuals litter. Though these studies have aided the fight to curb litter, researchers remain focused on finding what motivates a person to toss garbage into the environment.
The psychology of a litterbug is an ever changing landscape, but researchers have made strides in recent years in figuring out who litters and why. One study, in particular, labeled the types of litterers.
In 1997, the Beverage Industry Environment Council commissioned a report entitled, “Understanding Littering Behaviour in Australia.”
The goal of this report was to increase understanding of littering behavior with hopes of using this information in anti-litter campaigns.
This report found that some people simply neglect to dispose of garbage while others purposely litter the environment. Of those that litter directly, researchers found there were specific ways people did it.
The first type of litterer is the one who tries to find a place for the disposable object that still leaves the area looking clean. One strategy is ‘wedging.’ ‘Wedgers’ attempt to tuck the object into cracks or other places where it won’t be blown away.
Another strategy is ‘undertaking.’ These litterers bury the object, usually under gravel or leaves.
Other types of litterers include those who seek out a trash bin, but they do not ensure all of the trash makes it into the garbage. ‘Dual disposers’ are those who equally dispose of and litter objects.
Some people were discovered to be ‘90 percenters,’ who throw away large objects, but they leave behind less conspicuous objects.
Lastly, the report found there are those who make the effort to get to a trash bin, but they fail to get the garbage inside. ‘Foul shooters’ find their way to a garbage can in order to shoot their trash into it, but once they miss they just leave the trash on the ground.
No matter how a person litters, it still has negative repercussions on the environment, whether or not the litterer sees this impact first hand.
“Potentially people think it’s okay because they don’t see the direct harm,” Rottman said. “Because they’re not seeing it directly in front of them people don’t viscerally see the harm they’re causing to others.”
In Rottman’s research, he also found that framing environmental conversation as an issue of purity may prove to be beneficial. He explained that purity violations are usually met with the emotion of disgust, which may deter people from hurting the environment for fear of negative public sentiment. His final point was that if people can be made to view the environment as a sacred or protected value then people will be more likely to engage in concerns about the environment.
As for the “Understanding Littering Behaviour in Australia” report, it went even further to try and establish how different personalities produce varied kinds of litterers.
There are those who do not fear public sentiment when it comes to littering. ‘Flagrant flingers’ are those who litter out in the open without any attempt to conceal their actions. This is a stark contrast to ‘inchers,’ who take a quick look to make sure they’re not being watched before placing the litter beside them and slowly inching away from it.
The report established that some litterers have more careful behaviors than those who recycle or dispose of garbage.
Researchers and psychologists to this day continue to study why people litter, but studies so far have outlined the types of personalities of those who litter.