S'poreans with more empathy prioritise the environment over money & comfort of family: NTU study

Not just about saving money.

Ashley Tan | March 10, 2021, 02:31 PM

A study by researchers from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has found that Singaporeans with more empathy are likely to be more environmentally-friendly as well.

The findings, revealed on Mar. 9, come in response to the growing importance of reducing energy to tackle climate change.

According to the study by PhD student Swati Sharma and Associate Professor from the Nanyang Business School Georgios Christopoulos, the residential sector is forecast to become the biggest energy-consuming sector by late 2030.

To reduce energy consumption in households, it is key to examine and better understand Singaporean's attitudes and behaviours about the topic.

Will spend on energy-saving options even if they cost more

The study was conducted via an online questionnaire, surveying 520 resident Singaporeans from Feb. 2019 to Mar. 2019.

The sample included a large number of homeowners (87 per cent), close to the national average (91 per cent).

Typically, the main reason for people choosing energy-saving options for appliances is to save on utility bills, the researchers acknowledged.

However, the study's findings have posed a counterpoint to this narrative — that people's preferences are based on their level of empathy instead.

Singaporeans, they discovered, would be willing to pay more to minimise their carbon footprint.

Findings showed that a majority of respondents would go for more eco-friendly options — energy-saving air conditioners for example.

Eight out of 10 respondents (79 per cent) would prefer to buy such an air conditioner even if it is more expensive.

To reduce carbon emissions generated, 82 per cent would keep room temperatures between 23°C and 25°C instead of lowering them further, despite knowing their children or co-workers would be more comfortable in a cooler setting.

More empathy = more environmentally friendly

The link between empathy and eco-friendliness is further explored.

The study assessed how much empathy respondents have, and found that over 50 per cent of respondents have high levels of empathy.

Respondents were also tested with three hypothetical scenarios — they were required to make energy-saving decisions 1) for themselves, 2) in a work environment with co-workers, and 3) at home with their family.

For all three scenarios, empathy significantly influenced energy-saving behaviour, regardless of whether the energy-saving measures impacted the people around them like colleagues or family members.

Those with high levels of empathy are thus more likely to choose energy-saving and eco-friendly options such as buying local produce over imported vegetables.

The findings were initially a bit of a conundrum — wouldn't people with more empathy keep in mind the comfort of their family and co-workers?

For example, a person with high empathy would keep the air-conditioning at a lower temperature to ensure the place is cooler and more comfortable for the people around them.

However, Singaporeans with high empathy were found to not just think of their inner circle, but to also empathise with their outer circle, beyond their family and workplace.

This includes other families, the environment they live in and the whole country.

"The more empathy a Singaporean has, the more likely he or she would consider the overall or long-term environmental or societal impact, ultimately choosing to forgo the [person's] comfort," Christopoulos said.

This empathy would also increase the likelihood of Singaporeans adopting behaviours that contribute to the "greater good", Swati added.

Photo from NTU

Saving energy for a sustainable future

This study is pertinent in that Singapore has recently launched the Green Plan 2030, a whole-of-government initiative to drive the country towards a more sustainable future.

One of the targets under the Green Plan is to use more clean energy and reduce Singapore's energy consumption.

This can be seen through the move towards cleaner, electric vehicles.

Top photo from Siti Nurjanna