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Exploring the experiences of domestic abuse survivors working in the field of domestic abuse support.

What are the psychological consequences of working in this field for women survivors of abuse?

Women’s community groups as well as domestic and sexual abuse support organisations provide safe spaces of healing for women surviving trauma and abuse; spaces where mutual understanding and shared experience can offer a sense of hope and recovery. It is quite usual for a significant proportion of support workers and practitioners within these organisations to share lived experiences of abuse, estimated to constitute over 50% of organisational staffing (Slattery and Goodman, 2009; Bemiller and Williams, 2011). This has been common since the first women’s groups were formed in communities in the 1960s and 1970s in England and these women’s community services are arguably never more needed than currently, given the current epidemic of violence against women and girls being perpetrated (Justice Inspectorates, 2021).

However, what of the impact on support workers with lived experience of abuse? I interviewed twelve women support workers from five different women’s support organisations to ask about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding their career choice and to enquire how this had affected them in terms of both positive and negative emotional impacts. What were they gaining personally and what was the impact on them when undertaking this emotionally challenging work?

Creating something positive from lived experience of abuse

The findings from my study (Gilbert, 2020), found that the experience was distinctly personal to each woman I interviewed, as was the readiness to feel able to work in women’s support work. Overwhelmingly, a key benefit for interviewees was the notion of purpose. For women survivors who chose to work in domestic abuse support work, this practice role could be the mechanism for many to achieve a personal sense of purpose and to make sense of a traumatic period in their own lives, using the experience in a positive way. One woman spoke about this in detail to me and said,

“I suppose it’s a silver thread that can be pulled from the trauma of what I went through. I can pull one positive aspect from the experience of abuse and use it for something good, something honourable – helping other women to move from victim to survivor, like I was able to, with the help of other women survivors. “

In addition to purpose and meaning, women spoke of the rise in their own self-esteem and their feelings of a sense of belonging to something important. In being able to work as a professional in domestic/sexual abuse support work, this enabled survivors to rebuild their sense of confidence and created a sense of empowerment by enabling them to create a professional life after experiencing abuse themselves. Women interviewed identified an environment of shared understanding, a sense of feeling comfortable, and to have had a sense of a unique connection with their women service users. The notion of having ‘walked in the same shoes’, enabled survivor support workers to feel able to provide what they described as an authenticity of support to other women experiencing abuse and violence. They strongly believed that in offering what could be termed ‘peer’ support, this felt very different to support from someone without similar shared lived experience.

Personal costs of survivor support work

Conversely, there were personal costs to being involved in support work as a survivor. The main issue appeared to be triggering painful memories and trauma, irrespective of the time between experience and practice. Some women survivors found it difficult not to recall events in their own lived experience when working with women service users, especially if their personal accounts resonated with their own experiences. Vicarious trauma is a potential risk for all support workers of victims of domestic abuse, so, too, burnout or countertransference (Iliffe and Steed, 2000).

The protective factor to mitigate against risk was supportive supervision from a line manager or a clinical colleague, and from this small-scale study, for many of these practitioners, this was not provided and did not meet their needs as survivors support workers. The further saturation of hearing about domestic abuse and in hearing the distress of service users over and above the survivor’s own lived experience is likely to be damaging without such clinical support.


The benefits to both survivor support work and to the women service user can be powerful within the domestic violence and women’s support sector. Survivor support workers can gain a sense of self- actualisation, esteem and belonging when working in their practitioner roles.

However, there can be a risk of re-victimisation to the support worker, particularly where appropriate clinical supervisory support is not provided. In using their own lived experience as a source of knowledge, a survivor support worker can enhance her own sense of self-worth, using her experience positively to add to her own process of recovery and self-actualisation.

There is a wealth of specialist women’s community support knowledge in the UK, including grassroots organisations formed by and for survivors themselves. Many of these are outside of the main large charity organisational funding steams and they struggle to maintain their services in the face of increasing demand and short-term funding arrangements.  The whole domestic abuse support sector needs longer term, ringfenced funding for specialist domestic abuse support organisations (SafeLives, 2021), especially those who provide for disadvantaged groups, those with complex disadvantage or those serving (semi) rural areas. This will then enable all survivor support workers to access the appropriate level of clinical or support supervision that they need to remain safe whilst undertaking this challenging but essential service in our community.

This blog post is based on a presentation delivered by Beverley Gilbert, Senior Lecturer, University of Worcester at the 4th European Conference on Domestic Violence on 15th September 2021, held online from Slovenia.

Beverley Gilbert

Beverley is a Senior Lecturer in Violence Prevention and Criminology at the University of Worcester. Her academic career follows 30 years working in various roles within the criminal justice sector. Her PhD research with Anglia Ruskin University examines peer mentoring with women who have multiple and complex disadvantages. Beverley is a member of the Trauma and Violence Prevention research theme at the University of Worcester, she is an Independent Member of Women Against Violence in Europe (WAVE) and Associate Member of Work with Perpetrators – European Network (WWP-EN).

Rebuilding trust in the police

The horrific details of the murder of Sarah Everard are shocking. Wayne Couzens,  an off-duty police officer with the Metropolitan Police, admitted killing Sarah in March 2021. He used his power as a police officer and falsely arrested Sarah Everard as she walked home in London, abducted her, then raped and murdered her. The details of the case are harrowing, and the impact of Sarah’s murder described by her family and friends is heart-breaking. Couzens has received a whole-life sentence for his crimes, meaning he will never be released from prison. The case has highlighted fears that many women face about their own safety, and has a much wider impact on society and trust in the police.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, acknowledged that the actions of Couzens had ‘shaken’ trust in the police. So what does this mean for policing, and what can the police do to rebuild the trust of the public?

Why trust matters in Policing

Effective policing relies on having the trust of the public. Levels of trust in the police depend on both personal contact and expectations of individual encounters with the police, and also confidence that the police as an institution will act as expected. Bradford and Jackson suggest that there are three dimensions of trust in the police, with the expectation that the organisation and individual officers will “be effective, will be fair, and will display values that are aligned with one’s own or one’s community.” Trust is a key element of police legitimacy whereby the public essentially accept the authority of the police as legitimate, and therefore comply with police actions and decisions. The procedural justice model found that compliance and legitimacy is gained through officers acting with fairness, treating people with respect and explaining their actions.

Measures of police legitimacy have been included in the Crime Survey for England and Wales which asks to what extent respondents agree that the police act lawfully, act consistently with their own ideas of right and wrong, and should accept police decisions. The results showed that whilst three quarters of people said they had confidence in the police, fewer (61%) agreed it was their duty to accept police decisions.

How might trust be restored?

Following on from the events surrounding the circumstances of Sarah Everard’s murder, there are a number of areas that the police could consider to start to restore the trust and confidence of the public.

Firstly is recruitment. Police officers and staff are vetted prior to being employed, to assess their integrity and suitability for police work. Couzens passed the vetting process and remained in post with full authority. The vetting processes and procedures for maintaining professional standards may well need to be reviewed to check they are robust and fit for purpose. The College of Policing offers guidance for police forces on making decisions about integrity, making sure officers and staff behave in an appropriate way, and providing transparency about the decisions that are made. The College of Policing publishes the Barred List annually, detailing officers and police staff who have been dismissed from their roles, including reasons for dismissal. In 2019-20,  232 officers were added to the barred list; most frequent reasons for their barring were: integrity (n=85), honesty (n=59), failure to perform duty (n=31), and abuse of position for sexual purposes (n=31). Whilst this offers some level of transparency, and the process has removed officers who should not be in a position of trust, there may be some question as to whether this is effective enough.

Changing Police culture

A culture of sexism and institutional misogyny has been reported to be widespread within the police service, and needs to be thoroughly investigated. This has been highlighted by the Police Federation’s National Women’s Group who described the pervasive nature of misogyny, frequently facing male ‘banter’ and questioning their competency for the job. However, in wider society misogynistic behaviour towards women is often tolerated, and accepted as part of the normal culture. Nottinghamshire Police piloted a policy of recording misogyny as a hate crime. An evaluation of this police found shockingly high levels of misogynistic activity, with the majority of women experiencing this behaviour, but with very few incidents being reported to the police. The experiences described have become normalised, and many women thought the police would not take any action, would not take it seriously or may blame them for attracting this behaviour.

Photo by  Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Police effectiveness in tackling violence against women and girls

Violence against women and girls is widespread – women and girls are disproportionately victims of violent crime including rape, other sexual offences, domestic violence, stalking and honour based crimes. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) recently published the report of their inspection of how effectively the police engage with women and girls. Data reported by HMICFRS indicated many types of violent crimes where women are disproportionately victimised, with sexual grooming, sexual activity involving a child under 16, exposure and voyeurism and stalking all recording over 80% of victims as being female.

In addition, a public survey by the HMICFRS found that trust in the police to keep women and girls safe was low: they reported that 14 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Police in my area work to prevent violence against women and girls’, with the same percentage agreeing that ‘I trust the police to prevent violence against women and girls’. Respondents wanted the police to:


  • Take offences against women more seriously (including arresting and charging more offenders for all types of violence/abuse; acting earlier so violence doesn’t escalate; speed up the process of dealing with offences; listening to women’s concerns about safe spaces; prioritising violence against women)
  • Ensure police have the correct values with more empathy towards female victims and that misogynistic behaviour is tackled;
  • Stop victim-blaming and put the responsibility on male perpetrators; and
  • Work in partnership with other organisations to address the epidemic of sexual violence and image-based crimes that particularly affect girls.

Making changes

The Government’s strategy for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls focuses on increasing support for victims, and increasing the number of perpetrators brought to justice, with the overall aim of reducing the prevalence of violence against women and girls. Victim engagement with the police is key to this, to increase the number of women feeling confident enough to report these crimes,  and to engage with the police and the wider criminal justice system. Effective implementation of this strategy needs the police to be seen to be trustworthy. As the Metropolitan Police announce an independent review into the standards and culture with the aim of rebuilding public trust, and the Home Secretary promises an public inquiry into police vetting procedures, behaviour and discipline, this may lead to culture change and improved practice within the police service more widely.

Dr Rosie Erol

Rosie is a researcher in the School of Psychology, and leads the Trauma and Violence Prevention research theme. She joined the University of Worcester in 2011, having worked previously as a senior researcher at the Home Office.

Forward into the past: Emotional Intelligence turns 30

Emotional intelligence (EI) enjoyed its 30th birthday last year and is fast becoming middle-aged, that is, if we take the writings of Peter Salovey & John (Jack) Mayer (1990) as the starting point for modern research into EI.  This anniversary gives us much to reflect on – certainly for me personally, as a researcher who has spent over a decade investigating EI (a third of its life) – but also for those of us interested in psychology more broadly and the study of individual differences. 

I began my EI adventure in 2008.  At that time EI was everywhere, and it had become a catch-all buzzword for improving society’s ills – take, for example, David Cameron’s infamous speech about emotion and compassion being at the core of understanding the causes of youth crime, which became known as the ‘hug a hoodie’ campaign. Self-help books were springing up regularly, telling us how to be more emotionally smart and how this was the ticket to solving all of our interpersonal problems.   This explosion of interest hadn’t escaped the attention of the UK government, who invested significant resources in school-based social and emotional learning programmes  in an effort to train EI in young people.  But we actually had very little scientific evidence about what EI was, whether training this was possible, and whether this made a tangible difference to young people in terms of academic success and mental wellbeing. 

In the academic world, EI was viewed as either representing a collection of specialist skills for perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions in ourselves and others, or as a collection of emotion-related personal qualities and competencies. This seemed to split opinion amongst researchers; some suggested EI was too ill-defined to be meaningful, others argued it was nothing new, and we were just measuring things we already knew a good deal about, like personality or intelligence, and cautioned against falling into the “jingle” or “jangle” fallacy trap.  Yet there were others still, who wholeheartedly embraced this as a new form of intelligence that could predict success in all areas of life – here is a detailed summary of the main arguments for those that want to delve more deeply.

As a newly minted PhD researcher, all of this debate and uncertainty meant there was plenty for me to explore.  I set about examining the ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ of EI, starting with finding out whether EI was actually useful for young people who were experiencing a range of different (everyday) stressors, but I found that this wasn’t clear-cut – if we measured EI through self-reports (as emotional self-efficacy), higher levels were useful for maintaining lower levels of symptoms in young people experiencing family dysfunction.  But if we measured EI as an ability (or skill set through IQ style testing), very high levels were counter-productive for those young people experiencing socio-economic adversity. 

With colleagues, we then went on to find other interesting (and potentially counter-intuitive) things.  We confirmed that the way that you measure EI matters because this predicts different ways of coping and engaging with emotion (here and here), but that universally ‘high’ levels of EI may not always be beneficial in all contexts – here is an open access review we wrote on this.  


So emotional skills and self-efficacy are different sides of the EI coin, but doubt remains over whether we are actually capturing an ‘intelligence’ and whether this is always a good thing.

Fast forward to 2020, and some of our most recent work has, in a sense, gone forward into the past to try to answer some of these questions.   One of the core tenets of EI theory is that emotionally intelligent individuals should be adept at recognising emotional expressions in others to facilitate effective social interactions.

Photo by Simon Schwyter on Unsplash

We tested 92 people in the lab, to see whether those with high scores on measures of EI could recognise dynamic emotional expressions at an earlier, more subtle stage of presentation than those with lower scores.  Using the Emotion Recognition Task, we showed people a set of video clips of faces morphing from neutral expressions into different emotions, from subtle through to intense levels, and found that: 1) emotional self-efficacy (self-reported EI) was not associated with recognition performance, 2) higher skill in emotional understanding did relate to better performance of emotion cues (subtle through to intense and particularly negative emotion) but that, 3) fluid cognitive ability was a better predictor of performance. In a separate study with young people, we found EI skills did not predict accurate recognition of emotion in voices.

So, this continues to raise questions about whether existing measures of EI are sensitive enough to represent individual differences in socially relevant aspects of emotion recognition, and also the validity of EI as a discrete, and meaningful, individual differences factor.  

What can we say about all of this?  

Three decades on, and it seems we are still grappling with key questions from the past.  Many researchers picked EI up and ‘ran with it’, without us really knowing what makes someone emotionally intelligent, or us being able to measure EI ‘in action’.  I don’t doubt that for most researchers, this urgency came from a good place, and a desire to make a difference to people’s lives through intervention.  However, a critical eye is needed. 

I believe there is room for further high-quality scientific work which could still lead us to make progress with EI measurement. But we will only succeed if we better integrate with the work going on in Emotion sciences more broadly.  For instance, the constructed theory of emotion tells us that rather than being ‘triggered’ in situations, our emotional experience arises from brain-based predictions, created from prior experiences that are specific to our culture and upbringing.  So, developing rich and informative (early) experiences seems to be pivotal to train our system to learn about, and learn from, socio-emotional interactions.  Similarly, this suggests that our current methods of testing EI are way off the mark (e.g., identifying posed emotional expressions; multiple choice questions about effective emotion management strategies, etc).  We may find the future lies in technological solutions (such as virtual reality) and we could look to allied fields of study for clues e.g., recent developments in the gamification of cognitive testing. Until we are better able to capture authentic EI ‘in action’ I fear we will continue to chase our tails.

The future

This is far from being just another ‘academic’ debate – emotional intelligence is being readily embraced by companies interested in developing artificial intelligence systems for reading emotions in humans, which has far-reaching implications for us all…just how reliable are facial movements for judging how someone is actually feeling? What are the implications of using emotion AI for decision-making (e.g., screening for criminal intent; an angry student at school; suitability of a job applicant)? As we surge further ahead into the technological epoch, this it is something we should all care about.


Dr Sarah Davies

Dr Sarah Davis

Sarah is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology & the Interpersonal Relationships & Wellbeing Research Group Lead.  She is currently writing a new critical primer on EI for Oxford University Press with Dr Bérénice Mahoney.

The Vital Role of Bystander Intervention in Tackling Violence & Abuse

On the 28th March 1960, a fire tore across the Cheapside whiskey bond in Glasgow, causing the walls of the building to explode outwards onto the police and firefighters below. As everyone fled, a young policeman, William Gribben, spotted a firefighter buried up to his chest in the rubble and calling for help. In that moment Gribben’s first instinct must have been to turn and run – that would certainly have been the safer course of action – but instead he chose to stop and free the injured firefighter from the rubble, dragging him to safety just moments before flames engulfed the area. Ultimately, 19 firefighters lost their lives at Cheapside Street that night, but alongside that enormous loss, we can also remember the actions of William Gribben. He could have run away and not got involved, but he chose to stop and help. He chose to be an active bystander, and in doing so he saved the life of Firefighter Charles Biggerstaff, my grandfather. Despite more than 60 years passing since that night, active bystanders continue to play a vital role in our society, and in recent years, have proven to play a particularly valuable part in tackling violence and abuse.   

What is a bystander?         

Cheapside St Fire, 1960

A bystander is someone who sees a situation but isn’t actually involved in it. They’re simply a witness, someone who happens to be there. The very nature of being a bystander means that you don’t have to get involved at all. You can choose to walk away from a problematic situation with no repercussions for you. Or you could take the second option – decide that you’re going to get involved and be an active bystander. Active bystanders are a particularly valuable resource in the fight against violence and abuse. By noticing what’s happening around them and speaking out when they see problematic behaviour, active bystanders can send a clear message that violence and abuse will not be tolerated or overlooked. At Stanford University in 2015, two cyclists famously noticed a male acting suspiciously in an alley and went to investigate. Their actions interrupted Brock Turner’s attempt to rape his victim, and ultimately led to him being caught and prosecuted. These two cyclists could just have carried on with their bike ride that night. They didn’t have to stop – after all, they were just bystanders and the problematic behaviour wasn’t affecting them. But like William Gribben, they chose to stop and get involved. We continue to hear stories in the media of active bystanders who have spotted a potential problem and intervened, from the waitress in Orlando who recognised that a child may be in danger and slipped him a note asking if he needed help,  to the woman walking home in London who spotted a situation that just ‘didn’t look right’ and by intervening, she prevented a child from being abducted or the bartender who recognised that a customer was being harassed and chose to do something.

What does ‘getting involved’ actually involve?

There’s a common misconception that being an active bystander means running headfirst into problematic situations and taking direct action. This can put lots of people off, especially if they don’t feel comfortable with confrontation. However, there are lots of ways to be an active bystander without ever having to directly confront someone. Yes, an active bystander will take action when they encounter problematic behavior, but that action can take lots of different forms, depending on the situation or what they feel comfortable doing. It might mean stepping outside and calling the police, creating a distraction, texting someone to see if they’re okay, or not laughing when someone tells a misogynistic joke. It can also mean noticing when a friend has bruises on their arm, offering to go to the police with them to make a report, or staying with them while they call a domestic violence helpline.  Being an active bystander can be all of these things and much more. It’s about noticing when there’s potentially a problem and choosing to do SOMETHING.

The UW Bystander Intervention Programme

The University of Worcester’s Bystander Intervention programme has been running since 2016. The programme is aimed at training UW students to recognise problematic situations related to violence and abuse, and to feel confident and able to intervene.  The programme takes eight hours and covers bystander theory, gender, domestic violence, sexual violence, as consent as well as developing strategies to intervene in a safe and effective way. Victim blaming myths are discussed and dispelled, and students are trained in how to best respond to someone making a disclosure. Students are taught how to spot potentially problematic behaviours, and do something to help, from supporting victims to make a report to having a conversation with a friend whose behaviour they are uncomfortable with. By offering this programme to all UW students, we aim to develop a safe a positive campus community where there is a clear message that violence and abuse will not be tolerated.

A two-year evaluation was carried out to determine the effectiveness of the UW Bystander Intervention Programme (Harrop & Taylor-Dunn, 2021). 123 students completed pre- and post-training questionnaires to measure their attitudes towards violence and abuse, and their confidence and willingness to intervene in problematic situations before and after the training. Results showed that after completing the programme, participants had a significant reduction in both hostile and benevolent sexism. There was also a significant reduction in the agreement with rape myths across four key areas (‘she asked for it’, he didn’t mean to’, ‘it wasn’t really rape’ and ‘she lied’). Participants reported that they were significantly more likely to intervene in problematic situations post-programme and had significantly reduced agreement with problematic statements. Participants also experienced a significant reduction in pluralistic ignorance post-programme, meaning that they were less likely to think that their peers condoned violence and abuse. This is an important finding as people are often more likely to intervene if they believe that the people around them will agree that there’s a problem and support their intervention.

It is extremely encouraging to see the positive impact that the UW Bystander Intervention programme has already. The programme will continue to run in the 2021-22 academic year, and there are lots of exciting developments in progress, including creating a shortened version of the programme for high school pupils and work on the role of bystander intervention in gaming. A comparison of the effectiveness of online vs face-to-face delivery of the programme will also be released later in 2021.

If you would like to hear more about the UW Bystander Programme, please feel free to contact Gill  You can also watch a webinar recorded earlier this year where Gill discusses the programme in more detail and her evaluation:

Dr Gill Harrop

Dr Gillian Harrop

Gill is a senior lecturer in forensic psychology. She came to the University of Worcester from the University of Lincoln, and previously taught on both the MSc in Forensic Psychology at Liverpool University, and the BSc in Psychology at the University of East London. Prior to this, she worked for Lincolnshire Police as an Intelligence Analyst in the Force Intelligence Bureau and Major Crime Unit.

Keen to be Seen to be Green

As we look to our and our children’s futures, one concern that looms over us is the damage continuing to be done to our environment, but to the most part our societies are united in wanting to fix the world we live in. As a result we are encouraged and motivated to engage in Pro-Environmental Behaviours (PEB) in every aspect of our lives, such as by reducing waste and recycling, making environmentally friendly product choices, minimizing our carbon footprints and making sustainable lifestyle choices when it comes to our diets. Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention will know quite clearly what they need to do.

However, too often, we don’t do these things. Why not?

This is why I think the question of how we can protect our environment is best dealt with by a psychological answer, but this answer will no doubt be a complicated one with many aspects to it. Fortunately this is something psychology has begun conducting a great deal of research into revealing this answer one layer at a time. These layers include understanding the role of personality differences (e.g. why do some people engage more in PEB than others?), how people understand their own roles in helping the planet, and the process by which people make important decisions around PEB.  

Recycling and Mate Choice

My particular interest is how social influence can affect people’s motivations to engage in PEB’s. This is because my background is in evolutionary approaches to psychology, in particular I am interested in why people incur the costs to help others (e.g. altruistic behaviour) and I’ve explored how being altruistic can be valuable in mate choice, as it is a desirable trait in long term partners for men and women. This is because it acts as a reliable signal of that partner’s abilities and characteristics that will make them bot a good partner and parent – vital traits in humans who benefit from having investment from both parents in raising any children.

As part of this research, I am interested in how different forms of prosocial behaviour play a role in mate choice (e.g. kindness, charity, heroism, trustworthiness), and PEB is one particular application of prosocial behaviour that I wanted to explore. This is because PEB’s are costly to perform (e.g. sorting out recycling, purchasing organic produce) but they do benefit others. That’s what led to me and my colleague Manpal Bhogal to conduct research recently published in Personality and Individual Differences that explore whether people who display PEB are more desirable partners (experiment 1) and if people report engaging in more PEB in the presence of potential partners (experiment 2). Both of the experiments we conducted took place online, and were mainly psychology students and other members of the public.

For experiment 1, participants were presented with a series of descriptions of members of the opposite sex that varied in how pro-environmental they were, with either them being described as high (e.g. “Person A always sorts through their household/everyday waste so that it can be recycled and re-used (metal, plastic, cardboard etc). Even though it is time consuming, they believe it is a useful thing to do”) or low (e.g. “When buying drinks, Person B always buys disposable coffee cups, and bottles of water which they do not re-use. (Low pro-environmental behaviour.”)

They then rated each on how desirable they would be for either a short-term relationship (e.g. brief affair, one-night stand) or long-term relationship (e.g. a committed long-term romantic relationship). We found that both men and women found individuals high in pro-environmentalism to be more desirable overall, and this effect was mainly for long-term relationships (i.e. individuals high in pro-environmentalism were highly desired for long-term relationships

In experiment 2, participants were presented with hypothetical scenarios where they were asked by a researcher about their pro-environmental behaviour (e.g. how much they recycle, use reusable coffee cups/water bottles, purchase environmentally-friendly products). Each time participants were shown a picture of the hypothetical ‘researcher’ which was either a highly attractive member of the opposite sex or the same sex (we used images that had previously been rated for physical attractiveness).

We found that both men and women reported engaging in more pro-environmental behaviour when the researcher ‘asking’ them was an attractive member of the opposite sex than when asked by an attractive member of the same sex.

These results show that as with other forms of prosocial behaviours such as altruism and heroism, pro-environmentalism can act as a signal to others of important characteristics that an environmentally-friendly individual possesses. These characteristics are viewed in a positive light, and in particular here can signal characteristics (such as kindness, potential to be a good partner and parent) we find important in relationships, in particular more longer term, committed ones.

As such, it can help guide how we think about how to promote PEB, by not just highlighting its value directly from helping the planet but also indirectly by how it can enhance our reputation. This is important I think, because the direct benefits of pro-environmentalism are difficult to observe, quantify or comprehend. For example, how can you see an individual decision to reduce one’s carbon footprint by changes such as using energy-efficient lightbulbs in global figures around climate change? The answer is you clearly cannot, which is a key reason why we don’t engage in sustainable behaviours – there’s no direct benefit that can be observed. This is why findings such as this where we can show that there are clear and immediate indirect benefits to being green (in this case, increased desirability as a romantic partner) are helpful, as they can be used to promote and shape these positive behaviours overall.

Another key reason for this is the fact that it is costly to engage in, which seems counterintuitive but shows that an environmentally-friendly person is willing to incur the costs (in terms of time, effort and/or money) to take part in these behaviours (e.g. sorting through their rubbish for recycling, spending more money on greener products, eating a more sustainable diet). By doing so, they make honest displays of their prosocial character, and others recognise and value this. In fact there is evidence that environmentally-friendly products are often considered ugly, but that ugliness acts as a reliable signal of its green credentials and thus making it more desirable!

Finally, it’s important now to follow up this research by looking at actual PEB to see if the mating motivations we found do translate to real world behaviour. This then will highlight how important psychological research and interventions can be in shaping positive behaviours in the world around us, and how psychology in general can make a difference.

Dr Daniel Farrelly

Daniel is a Principal lecturer in psychology. He obtained his BSc (hons) in psychology from Liverpool University in 1999, followed by an MSc in evolutionary psychology from Liverpool University in 2000. He gained his PhD in Psychology, studying the evolution of human cooperation, from Newcastle University in 2005.

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