Down with guilt! There are much better ways to get people to act on climate change.


How do you get people to do something about climate change? For years, the answer to that has been: Get them to think about how it’s their fault. Because any human who happens to live in North America has taken advantage of central heating, combustion engines, mixmasters, monster truck rallies, etc.

When people think about how their day-to-day actions create climate change, then they’re more likely to do all the other things that might slow the process down long enough for our ecosystems to adapt: things like eat less meat, bike instead of drive, drive a fuel-efficient car instead of a monster truck, and/or sue the U.S. government.

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.

If this research is right, much of the way that organizations try to mobilize people around climate change is wrong.

The story behind the study is this: 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 out to an Audubon email list. In the survey, people were randomly assigned to spend four minutes writing about either how they personally were causing climate change or how climate change was being caused on a social level. A third control group was asked to describe their daily routine — did they brush their teeth? When did they exercise?

Those surveyed were also told that they were in the running to win $100. They could donate some of their potential winnings to the Audubon Society for its climate change programs. How much did they want to donate? This last bit is a common device that social scientists use to put a numerical value to ideals. While 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.

When I interviewed Obradovich about the study, he told me that he and Guenther expected that people who wrote about climate change would donate more to the Audubon Society than people who hadn’t, but they weren’t sure which set of writing instructions would receive the most donations — or even if there would be a difference between the two.

When the results came in, they were shocked. There was virtually no difference between the group that wrote about their role in creating climate change and the control group. Asking people to think about how they were causing climate change was no more likely to move them than asking them about whether or not they liked to drink coffee in the morning. 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 not a representative sample of America. Ninety-four percent of Audubon Society members believe in climate change, and over 80 percent of them believe that people are causing it. 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 that is often used these days for social science research. People on Mechanical Turk are younger and more educated than the general population and more likely to accept climate science, but still a lot less likely than the average Audubon Society member.

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

So why the difference? Obradovich has a theory. Even when people get the reality of climate change – and even if they are already trying to cut down their carbon emissions by doing things like eating less meat, driving less, and thinking approvingly of Al Gore – they still really don’t want to think about how they might be causing it.

The result is cognitive dissonance — the discomfort someone feels when they realize how their behavior conflicts with their values. That can go two ways: Either the person changes their behavior to be more in line with their ideals, or the person changes what they believe in so that they don’t feel quite as uncomfortable. To Obradovich, choosing to not donate money could be evidence of the second response.

I was surprised by this study, but the researchers I contacted who were already working in climate change communication research 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.

For example: a study published in Nature Climate Change four years ago, which found that 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 think of themselves as 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,” he wrote back, “the findings in this paper raise more important questions that they answer.” The problem with thinking about your role in climate change as an individual, Maibach continued, is that no one likes to feel guilty, especially for problems they really didn’t create. “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 says this is the pathway to more research, not a definitive answer. The social science around climate change isn’t as developed as the hard science, but, he says, interest is growing. Obradovich is involved with a nonprofit called the Climate Advocacy Lab, which connects climate groups doing advocacy work with social scientists doing 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 collectively-minded climate messaging look like? Would it look like communist propaganda?

Or maybe old World War II posters would be a better guide.

dr seuss conservation car propaganda

I’d argue that the climate change activism of the last few years has shifted away 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 few years ago, 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 still flying places on airplanes. “One of the favorite things of really guilty people,” he 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.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living, Science

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