Do you consider yourself an eco-friendly person? You recycle, you compost, hey, you even have solar panels on your roof! You’re going all green and doing your best for the environment and your town’s sustainability group has taken notice! Good for you.
Except that your cat likes to frolic outside and scare away or hunt the occasional songbird or two. But that’s not a big deal…or is it?
According to a new study from Cornell University, if you have an outdoor cat, you are judged by the birders in your community to be “less concerned about the environment,” despite all the other green measures you have taken. The team of scientists who conducted this study used Habitat Network to analyze peoples’ opinions of their neighbors’ level of sustainability. Following Science Daily, Habitat Network is a social network mapping application that allows users to create and share virtual maps of their properties that highlight their sustainability efforts, essentially a show-and-tell for good conservation practices.
To design their study, the team created two profiles of a green-friendly homeowner that were exactly the same: each home had a small lawn that used few and solar panels. The profiles were identical except that one had an image of an indoor pet cat and the other had an image of an outdoor pet cat. No biggie, right?
Wrong! If you’re a birder or know a birder, you are likely aware that the topic of outdoor cats is highly controversial in the birding community. Outdoor cats pose a threat to many wildlife and are especially dangerous to birds, known to either scare them away from their nests or even kill any they can catch. This doesn’t bode well with bird-watchers, and reactions to the two profiles were clearly distinct.
The study’s results showered that participants who didn't own cats negatively judged the profile with the outdoor cat image, to the point that they assumed that the owner of the profile would be less likely to participate in pro-environmental behaviors (such as those actually listed on the profile).
"Everything else in this map is pretty much signaling that this is a person already quite committed to sustainability causes. It usually takes a strong environmental commitment to install a solar panel. These findings say a lot about how we make judgments of others who are either violating or complying with these sometimes-parochial norms," said Hwanseok Song, the paper's lead author.
"We thought this was a very interesting opportunity to study group norm violations," said Song. "What happens within this community when they see one of their members violate an important group norm? Do people notice cues that a member of their community is letting their cat outdoors? Do these people who notice those cues actually use that information to make judgments on that group-norm violator?"
The results of this study are interesting because they can advise us on how to best unite communities in efforts for sustainability. For example, if a community is striving to create a more environmentally-friendly atmosphere in town, this study alerts us to the need to address tacit biases and assumptions among participants in order to assure success in the long-term goals of sustainability.