Leaving a green legacy

Getting people to care about the environment is a struggle. One problem is that we tend to ignore problems that will arise years or decades from now. But researchers may have found a way around this psychological roadblock: according to a new study, asking people to ponder the legacy they will leave behind tends to encourage more environmentally-friendly behavior.

The team started by surveying 245 Americans, who thought they were participating in a study about decision-making. One part of the survey assessed how much each person cared about leaving a legacy. For instance, respondents indicated whether they agreed with statements such as “I feel a sense of responsibility to future generations”. They also answered questions about their attitudes toward climate change and whether they planned to behave in a green way.

At the end of the survey, the participants were told that they might win $10 in a lottery. They could decide whether they wanted to keep the entire bonus for themselves or donate part of it to an environmental organization.

People who scored higher on the legacy questions tended to care more about climate change issues, intended to perform more environmentally-friendly actions, and donated more of their bonus. For instance, participants with legacy scores in the top 25% donated about a third of their bonus on average, and those in the bottom 25% gave less than a fifth.

Next, the researchers conducted an experiment with a different group of people. They divided 312 participants into two groups and asked one group to write an essay answering the question “What do you want to be remembered for?” Then both groups completed a survey similar to the one given in the first part of the study.

People who had written the legacy-related essays scored higher on pro-environment attitudes and behavior — and they also donated about $1 more on average than people who had not written an essay. The results suggest that “legacy motives matter deeply for proenvironmental action,” the authors write in Psychological Science. “Prompts that encourage people to think about how they would want to be remembered (or perhaps what they don’t want to be remembered for) may effectively promote environmental behavior.” Roberta Kwok | 15 January 2015

Source: Zaval, L., E.M. Markowitz, and E.U. Weber. 2015. Psycholoogical Science doi: 10.1177/0956797614561266.

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