Remember Me: Personal Legacy and Global Warming

Later this month, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change will release its fifth and latest assessment of the scientific evidence regarding human interference in the world’s climate. Based on the working papers that have preceded this final synthesis, the IPCC will echo the alarms of earlier assessments—that global warming is unequivocal and unprecedented and extremely likely to have been caused by human activity. The report will call for new policies to mitigate climate change and the likelihood of severe and irreversible consequences.

The IPCC has been studying and reporting on global climate change since 1988, with increasing urgency, and indeed received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its work. Yet none of these scientific reports has significantly changed human behavior, which is woefully inadequate to make the needed changes. That’s in large part because of psychological barriers to change: Despite the overwhelming evidence for global warming and its dire economic and human consequences, these consequences lie way off in the distant future. They are a problem not for us but for future generations, and are easy to ignore.

So how do we address this difficult psychological challenge, and get today’s global citizens to act on the behalf of future others? A team of psychological scientists at Columbia University—Lisa Zaval, Ezra Markowitz and Elke Weber—has been studying the psychological barriers to environmental action—and ways to motivate people to sacrifice now for humanity’s future. Specifically, they had the idea that concerns about our future legacies—our lasting reputations—might be leveraged to promote environmental thinking and action.

The scientists tested this idea in a couple simple experiments. They recruited participants for what was ostensibly a study of decision making, and asked them three sets of questions. They assessed their beliefs about climate change, and also their willingness to take action for the sake of the environment. They also asked how motivated they were to leave a positive legacy for the future. Once the participants had answered these questions, the scientists gave them the option of donating money to an actual environmental advocacy group, Trees for the Future. The idea was to see if people who cared about their lasting reputation—if these people were more likely to hold pro-environment beliefs and take action to support those beliefs.

They were. And they also gave more money to the environmental cause, regardless of their background or political affiliation.

Based on this pilot study’s robust findings, the scientists decided to see if they could actually manipulate people’s concerns about their legacy, and by doing so promote action on climate change. They recruited a new group of volunteers, and asked some of them to write a short essay describing how they would like to be remembered by future generations. This was meant to prime their thinking about the future and their legacy. All the participants then answered questions about their beliefs in climate change and their willingness to take pro-environmental action—for example, to buy green products instead of conventional. Finally, as before, they were given the opportunity to donate some money to a legitimate environmental advocacy organization.

The results echoed the earlier findings. As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, participants who had been prompted to think about their future reputation were not only more likely to believe in climate change, they were more likely to plan on personal changes for the sake of the environment. The scientists ran a special analysis to make sure that it was indeed their legacy concerns that brought about these personal changes in attitude and behavior. It clearly was.

The scientists say this is the first experimental demonstration that thinking about one’s legacy can boost engagement with environmental causes. It’s a paradoxical finding, in this way: The long time horizon for environmental conservation is often seen as a barrier to action, yet it appears that this very distance can be used to promote rather than discourage engagement. Many people have a need to be remembered well, even if that motivation is hidden, so sparking it can shift the focus to future others. Public policies that encourage futuristic contemplation might be one tool for stemming the ravages of climate change before it’s too late.

Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.

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