Making climate change all about ‘you’ doesn’t work for anyone—including you—study finds

Ever try to convince someone to take personal responsibility for climate change? A new study reveals why this probably didn’t work.

According to two University of California San Diego researchers, the better question to ask is what can we do about climate change?

This is because the results of their study show that when determining how much to act on climate change, framing the issue collectively is significantly more persuasive than focusing on personal responsibility. This finding contradicts many well-intentioned climate efforts that rely on personal appeals and individual calls to action to catalyze engagement and build momentum around the movement.

These results matter because while the science of climate change is increasingly sound—and increasingly dire—how to best redirect people’s behavior to address these challenges is far from clear.

“Advocates need to find messages and arguments that convince more moderate supporters that this issue is worth taking action over.”

UC San Diego political science doctoral student Scott Guenther, an author on the study, told me that while passion for environmental movements is great it can sometimes get in the way of effective advocacy.

“It’s important to use social science to evaluate the assumptions environmental groups make in their campaigns,” he said. “The personal versus collective assumption had not been evaluated before.”

Guenther said that this type of evaluation is necessary to help climate advocates do a better job of persuading individuals who believe climate change exists to take action.

“Advocates don’t need to convince Nancy Pelosi and voters for her district,” he said. “They need to find messages and arguments that convince more moderate supporters that this issue is worth taking action over.”

Specifically the study, published in the journal Climatic Change, found that people were willing to donate up to 50% more money to the cause of confronting climate change when considering the issue in collective terms. Thinking about it from a personal perspective led to little or no change in behavior when compared to the status quo.

Guenther and lead author Nick Obradovich, a fellow doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science in UC San Diego’s Division of Social Sciences, reached their unexpected conclusion by surveying over 1,000 Audubon members and 300 members of the general public, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Each survey participant was randomly assigned one of three scenarios:

  1. Write a statement reflecting on the ways they personally cause climate change.
  2. Write a statement reflecting on how climate change is collectively caused.
  3. Write about daily routines (i.e. brushing teeth or drinking coffee). This group was the control group.

As part of the survey, subjects were told they had a one in 100 chance of winning $100 for completing the experiment. After submitting their responses, the participants were asked if they won, how much of the reward money would they be willing to donate to Audubon’s climate change efforts. The researchers used donations because it “forces individuals to put some skin in the game,” according to Guenther.

The results showed the collective respondents (group 2) consistently donating more than both the personal respondents (group 1) and the control group. For the members of the Audubon, collective-frame respondents were on average willing to donate 7% more of their potential winnings. Among the general public, this percentage skyrocketed to 50% more or higher relative to the control group. Furthermore, memberd of the personal-frame group (group 1) were hardly moved at all in their donations when compared to the control group.

“So when participants were still willing to give higher amounts of money several days after being told to think about the collective responsibility for climate action we knew we were on to something interesting.”

“Put another way, asking people to think about how they themselves contribute to climate change had a similar effect on donations as asking people to think about brushing their teeth or going to work every day,” state the authors.

This surprised even the study’s authors, who had hypothesized that contemplating climate change in any way—whether from a personal responsibility standpoint or a collective action framework—would incentivize people to donate more. But that’s not what happened.

To make sure they weren’t somehow off-base with their results, the two researchers conducted a follow-up experiment by contacting the general public sample again several days later and asking them how much they’d be willing to give. They found that the collective framework group was still willing to donate more.

Guenther said one of the most surprising findings of the study was that the differences in giving were durable.

“Lasting changes in attitudes—even beyond a few hours—can be surprisingly difficult,” he said. “So when participants were still willing to give higher amounts of money several days after being told to think about the collective responsibility for climate action we knew we were on to something interesting.”


Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 3.10.54 PMCoutesy of Obradovich et al.
Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 3.12.34 PMCoutesy of Obradovich et al.

In another attempt to weed out any misleading data, Obradovich and Guenther ran a survey with 450 different people recruited through MTurk to determine how they might alter their future climate change-related behaviors. Once again, the collective frame resulted in the highest aspirations for mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

With all the data lining up, the next question the researchers would like to answer is why is this happening, an inquiry that will require further research. Another key element of follow-up would be to investigate whether this type of framing works with people less likely to act on climate change in the first place. Both the Audubon members and the MTurk group as a unit believe more strongly in the significance of human-caused climate change than the average citizen of the United States, according to the study.

In lieu of the additional research necessary to determine the cause of the discrepancy between collectively motivated climate action and personally motivated action, the researchers propose two possible explanations.

For one, they suggest that the “production of cognitive dissonance”—the psychological discomfort experienced by someone holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values simultaneously—among personal responsibility group members may have caused them stress and confusion.

The authors explain:

In our studies, respondents overwhelmingly reported believing in climate change. In the personal task we asked these individuals to reflect on their contributions to this global problem—to focus on behaviors likely seen as conflicting with their own concern about climate change. Efforts to decrease this dissonance could diminish pro-climate behaviors and intentions.

The second possible explanation according to the authors is “the difference in construal levels for climate action.”

According to the study, in construal theory, the farther an object is from direct experience, the more abstract the construal, or consideration, of that object. What this means in terms of the study is that those individuals subject to the personal frame may construe climate change and questions about mitigation more “proximally,” or as more immediate, than the collective group. In doing this, those subject to the personal train of thought may end up focusing more on the personal costs and benefits of action and less on the broader environmental concerns that are less immediate or individualized.

This would mean that those thinking about climate change as a matter of personal responsibility feel less fear or anxiety about the overall issue of climate change than those thinking about it as a collective problem.

“Following this logic, individuals in the collective treatment group were motivated to donate to counterbalance their negative emotions stimulated by thinking of climate change with the positive feelings associated with prosocial giving,” states the study.


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