How 'time is money' thinking can hurt the environment: UBC research

April 23, 2015

Thinking "time is money" can be a barrier for people to act in environmentally friendly ways, even for tasks like recycling that take mere seconds, according to UBC research.

As Earth Day approaches on April 22, this dynamic has led to an unsettling outcome.

"Putting a price tag on time leaves individuals to focus on their own needs and goals, as opposed to the needs and goals of others, including the environment," says Ashley Whillans, PhD student in UBC's Department of Psychology and lead author of a paper on the subject.

In one of the paper's studies, a group of UBC students were asked to cut shapes out of construction paper. Participants - some of whom were assigned an hourly wage - were made aware that scrap paper could be discarded in a trash can inside the room, or in a recycling bin just outside the room (and a few feet further away).

Another study involved participants recruited from a public market in Vancouver; more than half reported being paid by the hour, and the rest were salaried. They were presented with two hypothetical situations: they had left their travel mugs at home, and had the choice of whether or not to go back home to retrieve them. In another scenario, participants were told they would miss the next bus home if they took the time to recycle a soda can. Each action would have added five minutes to participants' daily schedules.

Both studies found hourly wage workers were less likely to undertake environmentally friendly behaviours that required only a few additional seconds or minutes of effort.

"People did express a concern about the environment," says Whillans. "But they were unwilling to take action when they were reminded about the monetary value of their time."

To help combat this, Whillans recommends equating environmental behaviour with self-interest. She also recommends that organizations reconsider their billing practices and payment schedules to encourage more sustainable behaviour among employees.


The paper, "Thinking about time as money decreases environmental behavior," is published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Whillans's co-author is Elizabeth Dunn from UBC's Department of Psychology.

The paper featured five studies that employed different methods, ranging from the analysis of a British household survey to true and false quizzes. The research covered more than 7,000 individuals.

University of British Columbia

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