Cutting back on air-conditioning, turning off extra lights and sorting your recyclables can make you feel like you’re doing your bit for the environment. But if you’re already making a few such sacrifices, you may be less inclined when asked to make still more—supporting, for instance, government measures to mitigate climate change. New research has found that individuals who took sustainability measures at home develop the opposite attitude toward larger, national-level interventions like higher carbon taxes.

The study adds to a growing body of social science research on how people’s emotional and cognitive responses influence the way they relate to environmental issues. By understanding these responses, scientists hope to improve communication about climate change advocacy and policy. “Governments, environmental organizations and other nonprofits spend a huge amount of time trying to encourage us to do all this stuff in our everyday lives, says Seth Werfel, a political scientist at Stanford University who authored the study. “The assumption is that it might turn us into environmental activists and it might make us more supportive of policies at the national level, or at the very least it will have no effect on our policy preferences. But what people haven’t accounted for is that these messages can actually deplete our political will.”

To see how people processed information about energy conservation, Werfel surveyed more than 14,000 people in Japan after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused the shutdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the wake of the disaster Japan suspended operations at most of its nuclear reactors, which at the time generated more than a quarter of its power. A grassroots energy-saving movement called setsuden (for “power saving”) emerged to avoid blackouts. The campaign encouraged people to adopt energy conservation behaviors (pdf) similar to recommendations around the world—decrease air-conditioning usage, raise refrigerator temperatures, unplug appliances when not in use and turn off lights during the day.

These temporary steps seem to have had a long-term impact. Roughly, four years after the setsuden movement, Werfel sent a survey on energy use to 12,000 people. Half the respondents received information about setsuden and were then asked to check off all the energy-saving actions they had completed during the campaign. The remaining respondents either got the description of the program and no checklist, or no information about setsuden at all.

All participants were then asked some other questions, such as whether they would support a government tax increase on carbon emissions. On average, people who had filled out the checklist tasks were about 13 percent less likely to support the government tax than people who did not report on their own energy-saving behaviors. The checklist group was also more likely to indicate that individual actions were more important than those of the government; they also rated energy and the environment as a lower national priority.

Additional surveys showed that if people had performed only one easy individual action unrelated to setsuden—such as recycling at least one item in the past week—they were still less inclined to support the carbon tax, although the difference was statistically insignificant. The respondents who thought recycling was important, however, were 15 percent less likely to support the tax. The results, published June 12 in Nature Climate Change, highlight a divergence between individual behaviors and attitudes toward government sustainability actions. “You’d think that people would be consistent. If they change their individual behavior to be more sustainable, they would also be supportive of government policies,” says Susan Clayton, a conservation psychologist at The College of Wooster in Ohio who was not involved in the study.

One possible explanation is that people have the sense they have already done their part, Clayton says. She likens to this logic to going to the gym or for a jog and then deciding one need not cut back on dessert. “One behavior makes the other one seem unnecessary,” she adds. It is also easier to perceive the immediate effects of individual conservation actions compared with long-term government interventions intended to forestall climate change, Clayton notes. Using a fan instead of an air conditioner reduces your electricity bill and can make you feel like you have made a noticeable difference. If you can check even more behaviors off a list, additional government actions may seem increasingly unnecessary. “People want to do what seems like the socially right amount,” Clayton says. “That means you don’t want to do more than your share because you don’t want to feel like other people are free riding on your own efforts.”

Some experts are cautious about assuming these behaviors always prevail. Indeed, some studies have found that pro-environmental behaviors trigger positive spillover effects. In other words, people who conserve energy are also more likely to engage in ride-sharing, recycling, reducing water consumption and other pro-environmental behaviors. And even in cases of negative spillover, like the one demonstrated in Werfel’s study, pro-environmental public messages may influence just one of several priorities that people have.

Individuals also have different motivations when asked to do the right thing—and not all of them are purely altruistic. “The belief that environmentally oriented behavior is a sacrifice, that it’s something you do because you’re responsible and you care for the planet, is overblown,” says Steve Cohen, an environmental science and policy researcher at Columbia University who was not involved in the study. Cohen believes people get involved in sustainability efforts because installing solar roof panels may bring cheaper electricity or because driving an electric vehicle may be more attractive. Others, he says, engage in conservation because energy-efficient appliances are more accessible or simply because it is what the kind of person they identify as would be expected to do.

So what is the best way to communicate about sustainability without having public service messages backfire? According to Clayton, putting information in the proper context is key. When providing information or asking people to make informed decisions, inducements to change behaviors are not enough. Messages that communicate the need to conserve energy or not pollute the environment must be coupled with various motivating factors—saving money, tapping into a person's do-good tendencies or some other impetus to spur action. Clarifying how government actions align with and complement individual behaviors and identities could also encourage people to take their actions a step further, Clayton says. “Climate change communication is a much more psychological issue than a lot of people realize,” she explains. “We need to take the time to understand what drives people’s behavior, so we can come up with better solutions at both individual and policy levels.”