Many environmentalists view measuring a person’s carbon footprint–an assessment of the environmental impact of day-to-day activities–as a valuable educational tool that can lead to earth-friendly lifestyle changes. That may be true for people already committed to environmentalism, a new study suggests, but the practice could backfire with other people.

The study involved 212 college students who first were assessed for their attitude toward environmentalism–specifically, the degree to which their self-esteem depended on their commitment to the environment. They then were given a carbon footprint questionnaire to determine how their daily lives impacted on the earth. The scores they got back were assigned randomly to place them either far higher or far lower than what they were told was a typical student score.

Finally, the students were asked to write to the governor on an issue of their choice. Students who were the most committed to environmentalism and who had received a high score were the most likely to pick an environmental issue. Among less-committed students, those who were told they had a large carbon footprint were less likely to choose an environmental topic than those who had gotten better scores–even though the scores had been assigned randomly.

The results from one small study are hardly conclusive, Tom Jacobs notes in Miller-McCune, which reported on the study. Still, it suggests that “encouraging environmentally friendly behavior remains a tricky, problematic endeavor.”

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