Behavioural Science

Knowing But Not Feeling It: What Moral Colours Can Tell About Eco-Friendly Thoughts

Research question

Is the level of morality equal between eco-unfriendly behaviours vs other types of social behaviours, such as lying, cheating, and stealing?


On the conscious level, we are all aware of the current climate change situation, and we all know what the ‘right’ thing to do to preserve the environment is. Interestingly, this setting evokes a common irrational behaviour pattern: people know what to do, and understand the consequences of not doing the ‘right’ thing, but they don’t do it. How can this be so?


When people know what the ‘right’ thing to do is and follow it up with the ‘correct’ action, then they are driven by the moral principle, which guides the understanding of what is the ‘right’ action. Logically, we could allude to the idea that moral principles are out of order in cases where people consciously do something different instead of doing what they believe is a ‘right’ thing. Examples of such cases include lying, cheating, or stealing. Oftentimes, moralising about lying, cheating, or stealing helps correct the actions. However, this same principle doesn’t seem to work when it comes to moralising about being eco-unfriendly. Why would this be so? Why does morality work for correcting common social behaviours, such as lying, cheating, or stealing, but does not help correct eco-unfriendly behaviours? Is this because the level of morality between the two types of behaviours is not equal?


A colour-emotion association study was designed to test the levels of morality between the two types of behaviours: social vs eco-friendly. We have done this by asking the participant to remember when they felt guilty or proud about the situation, when they have lied, cheated, or stole something, and also when they were eco-unfriendly. We wanted to evoke the emotions of guilt and pride because these two emotions can only be felt when the person is or is not driven by some moral principles. In other words, the feeling of guilt results because we know we have done something immoral, and the feeling of pride results because we know we have done something moral. We then asked participants to find the colour which represents guilt or pride for lying, cheating, and stealing and find another colour that represents guilt or pride for being eco-unfriendly. This allowed us to visualise and compare the people’s sense of morality towards two different types of behaviours.


The results have clearly surprised us. On the conscious level, we would expect that people would have really strong moral views towards the climate change situation and the ‘right’ actions to preserve nature. However, this is not what we have found. Colour-emotion associations have allowed us to see the non-conscious patterns of moral thoughts. Interestingly, colours were much ‘weaker’ for the eco-unfriendly behaviours than social behaviours, such as lying, cheating, and stealing. This suggests that moral principles of being eco-friendly do not work well on the non-conscious level, and this may be a reason why knowing what is the eco-friendly thing to do does not often translate into actually doing the same thing.

Why it Matters

The obtained results give an indication of why people don’t do what they say they will do to become more eco-friendly. Our study demonstrates that moralising about being eco-unfriendly may only work on the conscious level by raising the awareness of what is the ‘right’ thing to do. However, from what we are seeing today, conscious level thinking is not very effective in changing behaviour for the better. This is because our actions are more often automatic than rational, and this means that the non-conscious thoughts often drive us. This suggests that we first need to find a way to re-establish the effects of the moral dimension on the non-conscious level to be able to make a long-lasting change in continuing to be eco-friendly.


Zaikauskaite, L., French, P., Stojanovic, M., & Tsivrikos, D. (2020). The effects of moral context on the colours of guilt and pride. The Social Science Journal, 1-16.