Emotion, Motivation, and Mitigation

As climate researchers we often want to focus on the positive changes that have been made in fighting and adapting to climate change. Our belief, largely unfounded, is that accentuating the positive, as the song goes, will help motivate people to respond to climate change. After all, who wants to focus on the gloom and doom? However, according to a recent study, accentuating the positive might have negative consequences.

The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, is the work of Matthew Hornsey and Kelly Fielding from the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland.

The researchers were interested in how positive and negative emotions about climate change affect people’s behavior. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know if positive or negative emotions were more or less likely to produce positive or negative results linked to what’s called climate mitigation behavior, that is behavior that lowers one’s greenhouse gas output. Mitigation activities include, biking to work, switching off appliances, or signing a petition to pressure a government body to do something about climate change. (These are actual examples from the study.) Hornsey and Fielding’s findings are not what you might expect.

The researchers found that positive emotions related to feelings of hope were not strongly or reliably linked to what the researchers termed “mitigation motivation.” Instead, feelings of hope tended to dilute the study participants’ sense of risk and distress, leading to less positive behavior and lower marks on the researchers’ mitigation/motivation scale.

Hornsey and Fielding came to this conclusion by surveying participants from three high carbon-polluting countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia).

Study participants were asked to rate the extent to which thinking about climate change made them feel various emotions (including hope), the extent to which they felt personally empowered to take climate-mitigating actions, and the extent to which they intended to engage in behaviors that would lower their carbon footprint or otherwise mitigate climate change.

The responses revealed that hope-related positive emotions related only modestly to feelings of personal empowerment and self-reported mitigation behavior. On the other hand, negative emotions—anxiety, sadness, shame, etc.—were strongly correlated with personal empowerment and self-reported mitigation behavior.

That, in a nutshell, is part one of the study. Part two is where things get especially interesting.

In the second part of their study, Hornsey and Fielding exposed participants to either a positive, negative, or neutral statement about climate change. After reading their respective statements, participants were taken through a battery of tests to once again determine their emotions (whether positive or negative), their sense of personal empowerment around climate mitigation, and whether participants would engage in mitigating behavior. The results again come out positive for negative emotions.

The participants’ responses suggest that while positive statements gave participants hope about climate change, negative statements were better motivators for mitigating behavior. The reason, conclude the researchers, is negative messages tend to increase rather than decrease a sense of distress, personal risk, and, hence, the degree of personal responsibility participants felt; the exact opposite of what positive emotions like hope tended to produce in respondents. In other words, distress-related emotions are associated with mitigation intentions in a way that hope-related emotions are not. However, the authors note, these results should not be interpreted as implying that hope-related statements can never be an effective communication strategy, just don’t discount the positive effects of negative messaging.

Citation: Hornsey, M.J. and Fielding, K.S., 2016. “A cautionary note about messages of hope: Focusing on progress in reducing carbon emissions weakens mitigation motivation,” Global Environmental Change. 39, pp. 26-34. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.04.003

Photo Caption: “Solar panels in the mist. Solar panels stand in front of rows of trees at the Baldock Solar Highway project site.” (Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation, some rights reserved.

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