Despite the overwhelming evidence for global warming and recommendations to respond to the climate challenges, the implementation of pro-environmental behavior remains difficult for many individuals. One key notion in this context is that the reconfiguration of behavior generally requires cognitive effort, which entails an inherent cost. According to contemporary frameworks of cognitive control and decision making, the willingness to invest effort increases when valuable outcomes are at stake, such as monetary rewards. In a series of experiments, we investigated in how far participants are willing to invest cognitive effort for pro-environmental outcomes (eco rewards) and how this differs from prototypical personal ones (own rewards). The data show that the motivational impact of eco rewards in a cognitive control task is overall lower compared to own rewards. Consistently, when participants were given the opportunity to change the pre-selected outcome, they switched significantly more often from eco to own rewards than vice versa. This suggests that effort allocation is considered more costly when the outcome is less relevant for the individual – despite equal probability and magnitude. Intriguingly, the motivating effect of eco reward was more similar to own rewards when participants performed the task in the laboratory as compared to online, which hints at the contribution of social desirability. By focusing on cognitive effort and the associated inherent costs, the current paradigm may be used to test which factors and interventions can increase or decrease the willingness to allocate cognitive resources towards pro-environmental, as well as other societally relevant goals.
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