The basic message of environmentalists when it comes to global warming goes something like this: Global warming, if left unchecked, will wreck havoc on the planet. We need to act now to prevent it. Pretty straightforward, right? What better way to motivate the public to take action than by emphasizing the terrible consequences that will happen if they don’t?
But a new study, to be published in the January edition of the journal Psychological Science, finds just the opposite: that dire-sounding messages actually make people less likely to believe that global warming is a serious problem. One major reason for this is the fact that many of us cling to what psychologists term the “Just World Theory.” We want to believe that the world is just and orderly, and that people get what they deserve. Therefore we’re inclined to think it’s impossible (or at least highly unlikely) that simply going about our “normal” lives could trigger environmental catastrophe.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, only scratches the surface of a major problem in the environmental movement: those of us speaking out for sustainability – whether we are armchair activists or employees at massive NGOs – often assume that we know what motivates human behavior. Unfortunately for us, and the planet, many of those assumptions are wrong.
Think you know what motivates people when it comes to promoting sustainable behavior? Try these three scenarios on for size to test your Environmental Activist IQ:
1. You want to encourage people in your town to reduce their household energy usage. You must pick one of these four educational booklets and distribute it to the entire neighborhood: Booklet A discusses the environmental reasons to reduce energy usage; Booklet B discusses the benefits to the community; Booklet C simply states that most people have already reduced energy usage; and Booklet D details the money that can be saved by reducing energy usage. Which booklet would you use?
2. You know there’s a lot of misinformation circulating on the issue of global warming, so you decide to do a blog post to clear up people’s understanding. You’re trying to decide between two possible formats for your post. You can either write: a) an essay presenting nothing but the facts about global warming; or b) a “Facts and Myths” piece, where you note common misperceptions and then debunk them. Which format would you choose?
3. You’re a college student who wants to educate other students about things they can do to live sustainably. You’ve typed up a list of 20 things that people can do to help the environment – everything from being sure to recycle, to switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, to going vegetarian. You’re at the photocopy machine, ready to make copies of your list so you can pass them out to other students, when a thought hits you: should I shorten this list to just 2 or 3 suggestions? Which size list would you choose to distribute: a) the long list; or b) the short list?
Alright, enough questions – it’s time for some answers! But how could we even answer questions like these? Wouldn’t any answer we give be just an opinion, a hunch as to which path is most effective in promoting sustainable behaviors?
Thankfully, no! Researchers in the fields of psychology, sociology and communication have spent decades asking and answering questions just like these with controlled experiments. While much of the research is generalized, in recent years many studies have looked specifically at environmental issues and what it takes to inspire sustainable behavior in the public. If, instead of trusting our gut instincts, we turn to the scientific record for guidance, we will be significantly more effective at persuading others to go green.
Are you ready to find out how your Environmental Activist IQ? Here is what the research has to say about the three questions asked earlier:
1. Studies have found that Booklet C – the one that simply states most other people are already conserving energy – is most likely to get home owners to reduce their energy usage. In fact a study found that of all four booklets, Booklet C was the only booklet that generated reductions in household energy usage (Nolan et al. 2008). Other studies have confirmed that so-called “social norms” messages can be more effective than pro-conservation messages in eliciting sustainable behaviors like re-using towels in a hotel, refraining from littering in a public park, and using less water in the shower (Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius 2008; Cialdini 2003; Aronson and O’Leary 1983).
2. You will likely be most effective by going with option a), an essay that presents only the facts about global warming. While the internet is filled with “Facts and Myths” articles about topics ranging from global warming to gun control, research on the “Facts and Myths” presentation style shows that it can generate more confusion than clarity. One study found that just a few days after viewing a “Facts and Myths” brochure, people incorrectly remembered 30% of the false statements to be true. That percentage rose to 40% among older adults (Schwarz et al. 2007).
3. If you want to get people to adopt sustainable behaviors, then choice b) the short list is likely the better format. Studies have found that the more options people are presented with, the less likely they are to choose any option at all (Iyengar, Huberman and Jiang 2004; Redelmeier and Shafir 1995).
The human mind is a strange and sometimes incomprehensible thing! Probably the best motivation to change a viewpoint or habit, is for the person to experience first-hand the failure or whatever outcome results from his/her thoughts/actions. When reading about a topic such as sustainability, the individual’s mind is already forming opinions and prejudices with every sentence. Hopefully we all move away from environmentally damaging behaviour sooner rather than later…but that’s up to you!
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