Down With Guilt! There Are Much Better Ways to Get People to Act on Climate Change.
Down With Guilt! There Are Much Better Ways to Get People to Act on Climate Change.
By Heather Smith / grist.org

How do you get people to do something about climate change? For years, the answer has been to prod people into thinking about their role in causing it, to guilt trip them into action. Because any human who happens to live in North America has taken advantage of central heating, combustion engines, and the occasional monster truck rally.

A recent study in the scientific journal Climatic Change has a surprising take on this long-standing practice. It finds that asking people to think about their individual guilt in causing climate change is about as effective as asking them to think about brushing their teeth.

In other words, this research suggests that the common way organizations try to mobilize people around climate change is misguided. Better to frame it as our problem, an issue threatening all of us, than as a story of personal responsibility.

Nick Obradovich, and Scott M. Guenther, two political science PhD candidates at the University of California, San Diego, persuaded the Audubon Society to let them embed an experiment in a survey sent to an Audubon email list. In the survey, people were randomly assigned to spend four minutes writing about either how they personally contributed to climate change, or about the less-personal emissions driving climate change. A third group was asked to describe their daily routine. How often do you brush your teeth? What about exercise?

The survey told them they were in the running to win $100 and asked them how much of their winnings they wanted to donate to help the Audubon Society’s climate change programs. That’s a common device used by social scientists to attach a numerical value to an ideal. Although giving money isn’t exactly the same as taking action, money is a hell of a lot easier to quantify and put on a graph.

Obradovich told me that he and Guenther expected people who wrote about climate change would choose to donate more to the Audubon Society than those who wrote about their daily routine, but they weren’t sure which of the two writing prompts would lead to more donations.

When the results came in they were shocked. There was virtually no difference in donations between those who wrote about their personal role in climate change and the toothbrush-pondering control group. Meanwhile, the people who wrote about the general causes of climate change donated significantly more than everyone else.

Well, Obradovich and Guenther reasoned, the Audubon Society is hardly a representative sample of America. More than 80 percent of Audubon Society members think that people are driving climate change. Many signed over the full $100 donation regardless of what they were assigned to write about.

So the duo hired 304 people off Mechanical Turk, a platform often used for social-science research. Compared to the general population, people on Mechanical Turk are younger, more educated, and more likely to accept climate science — though a lot less likely than an Audubon member.

The conclusion was even more pronounced. Obradovich and Guenther sent another follow-up survey to the Mechanical Turk group two days later and the results persisted. Even days after writing about the collective causes of climate change, those Mechanical Turks donated more than anyone else.

So why the difference? Obradovich’s theory is that when people grasp the reality of climate change they simply don’t want to think about their role in it. That’s true even after they cut their carbon emissions by eating less meat, commuting by bicycle, and thinking approvingly of Al Gore.

Mulling over your personal contribution is likely to result in cognitive dissonance — the discomfort felt when people realize their behavior conflicts with their values. That can go in two directions. You either change your behavior to be more in line with your ideals, or tweak your ideals to ease the discomfort. To Obradovich, choosing not to donate money could be evidence of the latter response.

I was surprised at this study, but people researching climate change communication were not. “This resonates with earlier research,” John Cook, a physicist who studies climate change denial, wrote to me after I sent him a copy of the study.

A study published in Nature Climate Change four years ago found that even climate change deniers were more likely to agree with a pro-climate agenda if they thought it would improve society as a whole. There’s also the cultural cognition research of Dan Kahan, which found that people who think of themselves as part of society are more likely to get the reality of climate change than people who consider themselves rugged individualists.

I also sent the study to Ed Maibach, Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.  “Like all good research, the findings in this paper raise more important questions that they answer,” Maibach wrote in reply. The problem with thinking about your role in climate change as an individual, Maibach said, is that no one likes to feel guilty. “It makes sense that asking people to reflect on their contributions to climate change is not a good way to heighten their engagement in the problem.”

That said, even Obradovich said his research is a pathway to more research, not a definitive answer. The social science around climate change isn’t as developed as the hard science, though interest is growing. Obradovich is involved with a nonprofit called the Climate Advocacy Lab, which connects climate groups involved in advocacy with social scientists involved in climate research.

As public health issues go, Obradovich says, climate change is emotionally complicated.  It’s more tied to political ideology than other public health problems. Unraveling that will take a lot more research.

Here’s what I wonder. What would collective-minded climate messaging look like? Would it look like communist agit-prop? Or maybe old World War II posters would be a better guide.

dr seuss conservation car propaganda
Lee Morehouse

I’d argue that the climate change activism of the last few years has already shifted from messages of personal responsibility toward collective action.

The fight against the Keystone XL pipeline was one example. The struggle to get universities and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels is another. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter used similar framing: success will come when we change society, not just ourselves. A while back, I interviewed Andrew Ross, an NYU professor, about world debt and climate change. I was surprised when he gently reprimanded me for feeling bad about flying on airplanes.

”One of the favorite things of really guilty people,” Ross said, referring to every company whose bottom line depended on putting more carbon into the atmosphere,  “is to make people feel ashamed individually.”

At the time, it felt to me like a radical statement. These days, it doesn’t feel so radical anymore.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 20,177 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 15,198 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 9,747 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 9,599 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 9,109 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
Rap News Special Edition: Hillary Clinton Vs Donald Trump
7 min · 8,398 views today · Hello world. RAP NEWS is back for a special episode on the 2016 USA Election mayhem, feat. Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump + a touch of Jill Stein & Gary Johnson. This one's...
The International Criminal Court May Start Prosecuting People Who Commit Crimes Against the Environment
Tara Smith · 6,295 views today · The International Criminal Court is not known for prosecuting people responsible for huge oil slicks, chopping down protected rainforests or contaminating pristine land. But...
Caitlin Moran's Posthumous Advice for Her Daughter
Caitlin Moran · 6,099 views today · My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to...
Humanity's Greatest Challenges Aren't Technical, They're Human
8 min · 5,536 views today · Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is incomplete as we commonly know it. Later in his life, Maslow wrote about a stage beyond self-actualization. Nichol Brandford explains how to...
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 4,976 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
The Journey From Syria (2016)
71 min · 3,845 views today · Reporter Matthew Cassel spent a year documenting the journey of Syrian jeweler Aboud Shalhoub as he travels from Turkey to Greece, and through Eastern Europe to the Netherlands...
The Culture of Maximum Harm
Daniel Quinn · 3,264 views today · People have lived many different ways on this planet, but about ten thousand years ago there appeared one people who believed everyone in the world should live a single...
10 Photos That Show the Magnificent Light Shining on Standing Rock
Josue Rivas · 2,889 views today · Despite all the news of pipeline regulation, court appeals, and activist arrests, Native photographer Josue Rivas reminds us that it is actually a peaceful place.
American Cartel: How America's Two Major Parties Helped Destroy Democracy
Frank Castro · 1,553 views today · Cartel: An association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.
Prince Ea Just Put The School System on Trial and Found it Guilty of Killing Free Thought
6 min · 1,400 views today · Albert Einstien once said "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid". Today Prince...
The Little Engine That Couldn't: How We're Preparing Ourselves and Our Children for Extinction
Daniel Quinn · 1,382 views today · In a recent semi-documentary film called Garbage, a toxic waste disposal engineer was asked how we can stop engulfing the world in our poisons. His answer was, "We'd have to...
The Left Deserves Better Than Jill Stein
Kate Aronoff · 1,326 views today · Stein’s Green Party run doesn’t offer a plan to win, or to build power. The Left is capable of so much more.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,189 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 1,175 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,035 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Down With Guilt! There Are Much Better Ways to Get People to Act on Climate Change.