“Counterfactual” Thinking Encourages Pro-Environmental Behavior Among Tourists, Says New Study from Pusan National University

BUSAN, South Korea, Jan. 31, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Development of sustainable tourism is important for an environmentally sustainable future. Tourists, being the main consumers in the tourism industry, can largely enhance environmental protection if they choose to travel sustainably. However, it has been observed that despite being aware of actions that harm the environment of a travel destination, many tourists avoid taking steps to protect it.

The cognitive mechanisms that promote sustainable behavior among tourists have not been adequately explored in existing research, leading to a gap in understanding how pro-environmental attitudes can be generated at an individual level.

Recently, an international team of scientists, led by Associate Professor Dr. Hany Kim from Pusan National University, South Korea, conducted a novel study to analyze how a cognitive process known as counterfactual thinking affects tourist attitudes towards environmental sustainability.

Simply put, counterfactual thinking is the process of deviating from existing facts to imagine alternative ‘counterfactual’ realities, thinking "what might have been" if something had been done differently in the past. It leads to rational and realistic thoughts on whether different actions could have led to more desirable outcomes, and can push an individual to achieve their desired goals through behavioral change.

In their study, published online on 26th July, 2021 in the Journal of Travel Research, Dr. Kim and her team explored the effect of counterfactual thoughts pertaining to environmental information, by measuring behavioral and emotional changes in a group of potential tourists. "We drew inspiration from the reflection-evaluation model of thinking, behavior, and emotion, to design our study. However, instead of applying this to one test group, we modified our experiments to include a control group enabling us to measure the differences between groups in absolute terms. This made our study even more unique," Dr. Kim explains.

Over the course of their experiments, the two groups of individuals filled questionnaires which invoked counterfactual thoughts regarding the consequences of their current actions on the environment, and possible steps to prevent further environmental deterioration.

Their findings indicated that most individuals wanted to behave in a way that promoted sustainability, and that counterfactual conditions associated with behavioral improvement have the potential to positively impact tourist sustainable behavior. Interestingly, they also found that if counterfactual processing of environmental information induced negative or sympathetic emotional responses initially, potential tourists were more likely to display pro-environmental behavior in the long run.

How does this study affect tourism, though?
Assistant Professor Dr. Semih Yilmaz ̶ the lead author of the article ̶ feels that that as opposed to short-lived subconscious tricks, the framing potential of counterfactual thinking can prove influential in tourism communication and marketing settings, to prompt deliberate changes in visitors’ attitudes and behaviors. 

This study, which was the first to scrutinize the actual cognitive processes behind sustainable tourist behavior, paves way for large-scale promotional counterfactual content which encourages viewers to think about their impact on the environment.

"With counterfactual narratives or prompts in textual and visual messages, the behavior of tourists and the tourism business sector would evolve to be more pro-environmental," states Dr. Kim, summarizing the long-term implications of the study.

Hence, there is ample hope that organizations and individual stakeholders introduced to counterfactual thinking will come together to contribute to an environmentally secure future.


Title of original paper: Counterfactual Thinking in Sustainable Tourism Context

Journal: Journal of Travel Research

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00472875211028324

*Corresponding author’s email:

ORCID id: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7280-2318

About Pusan National University
Website: https://www.pusan.ac.kr/eng/Main.do

Na-hyun Lee
+82 51 510-7928


SOURCE Pusan National University