Warm green feeling: Environmentalism can raise your temperature

It’s getting cold outside. But don’t think warm thoughts—think green ones! New research suggests that acting in an environmentally friendly manner can raise your perception of the temperature. In other words, going green can actually elicit a “warm glow” in people.

“Literature suggests that people’s psychological state can affect their thermal state in the form of temperature perception,” wrote researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “Neurologically, this results from people’s insula becoming activated, which affects their temperature perception.” The insula is the insular cortex, a tiny brain region “implicated in an astonishingly large number of widely different functions” including pain perception and processing of social emotions. The authors wrote that the insula is also activated when we make moral decisions, a category which environmentally friendly actions falls comfortably inside.

Results of the new study were published in the journal Nature Climate Change. A total of 180 university students completed a carbon footprint calculator and were then shown a bogus “average footprint” number suggesting that each student had acted either relatively unfriendly toward the environment or relatively friendly. Everyone then reported what temperature they believed the room to be: the environmentally friendly folks perceived almost a full degree Celsius higher. There was also a comparison group who received no information an average footprint; they felt about the same temperature as the unfriendly students, again about a degree less than the more green participants.

A further analysis showed that the perceived temperature difference was the result of the environmentally friendly actions “serving as a positive self-signal.” In short: “Acting environmentally friendly boosts a person’s self-concept, which is reflected in a literal warm glow.” The figure below shows the actual results.

To the researchers, this suggests alternative approaches to environmental campaigns. Often, campaigns appeal to extrinsic rewards: save money by turning off lights, say. But instead of focusing on monetary reward, this seems to say that there is value in simply helping the planet. A campaign instead could simply reinforce that you’re doing something good: Help save the world by recycling! The environment benefits when you unplug your electronics! And so on.

The authors did acknowledge that this study focused on young, predominantly female (65 percent), highly educated individuals, a group that may happen to have strong environmental values and thus would amplify the warm fuzzy feelings found in the study. A more varied group could confirm these results.

Convincing people to act in the planet’s best interests has always seemed like a doomed proposition, but this is an encouraging counterpoint. We all want that warm glow, and now we know that small actions to help save the world can turn up that heat. – Dave Levitan | December 9 2014


Source: Taufik D, Bolderdijk JW, Steg L (2014). Acting green elicits a literal warm glow, Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2449

Image: Shutterst0ck, Andrija Markovic