Although the environment was a top issue among Fairfield students who participated, the typical respondent had adopted just three out of eight of the "green" habits addressed by a recent survey.
Two classes - Communication and the Environment and Environmental Reporting - jointly conducted the survey, sent by e-mail to all Fairfield undergraduates. (Note: This reporter is part of the latter class)
Among the behaviors surveyed, 97 percent of respondents claimed that they usually or always recycle when recycling bins are nearby. However, just under half of them said that they would hold onto recyclables even when it is not convenient.
Professor James Shanahan, who teaches Communication and the Environment, suggested that ease determined how responsible some students were toward the environment.
"A huge number of people said they recycle," he said. "But many fewer said they'd buy locally grown food because it's harder to do that."
Caroline Nunez '10, who did not participate in the survey, said that she usually holds onto recyclables except for when she is in a rush.
"It's either a lot more costly or a lot more time consuming," she said on doing more for the environment.
However, the survey results might not necessarily represent the opinions Fairfield students as a whole.
Shanahan said that the survey might have been more likely to attract "more environmentally interested and concerned" since the e-mail announced it as an environmental survey.
Confirming this is that about three-fourths of survey respondents said that they saw themselves as being are more environmentally conscious than their friends.
While the survey could be representing Fairfield's "greenest," there are other ways to interpret that result.
"Another possible explanation... is that people... tend to think they are more 'whatever' than somebody else," said Shanahan.
This suggests another potential reason for the lack of environmental activism among respondents:
"Spiral of silence is a theory that says people are more likely to express an opinion if they think the majority agrees with it," said Shanahan.
In other words, the perception that others are less concerned about the environment might discourage some students from standing up for it.
One Fairfield junior, who asked to remain anonymous to protect a future career in politics, admitted that he would feel embarrassed to be seen holding an empty bottle.
"If you're out on a hot date, you don't want to," he said. "It's just not appropriate [because of] social standards."
Yet, interviews with other students presented with the preceding scenario did not show a need for this concern.
"I wouldn't think that's weird or anything... it's just a bottle," said Lauren '09. "I don't think it'll really cross my mind."
However, it is not clear from the survey results if social desirability actually causes some students to put aside their environmentalism.
Ironically, the desire for social acceptance might motivate students to exaggerate how often they do pro-environmental activities, according to Shanahan.
The first section of the survey asked students to pick the three most important issues facing the nation from a list of roughly a dozen issues.
From this, more students placed the economy than the environment as a top issue - the latter of which ranked second.
However, towards the end of the survey, fifty-four percent of respondents said the environment should come before the economy.
"That can be explained by a number of factors," said Shanahan. "One is socially desirable responding."
While respondents might have played up their support for the environment by giving what they saw as the more correct answer, whether that created the apparently contradictory results is uncertain; an alternative explanation could be that students simply changed their minds.
When interviewed, many students said that they felt self-conscious about their actions after answering some of the survey questions.
"It definitely has," said Nunez on whether the survey has made her more environmentally aware.
"It's a little embarrassing," she said.