Last week Lynne Blundell pondered how Tony Abbott would react to a film she watched in Singapore showing a world five degrees hotter. It would be easy to speculate about Mr Abbott’s response, however Lynne’s pondering speaks to a more important question – how we can motivate pro-environmental decision making?

This is something that I explored in a recent paper published in the Australian Institute of Architects Environment Design Guide  and I would like to share some of what I learned.

The impact of dramatic imagery

Lynne’s article describes the dramatic imagery in the Singapore film – sea levels rising, crop failures, disease…

While Lynne noted that people in the cinema were moved, the more important question is, what did they do once they left? Did they change their lifestyle in any way, or continue as they did before?

In a study published in 2009, O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole studied the impact that different representations of climate change had on people’s engagement and motivation to act. They found that the shock and fear inducing images that “made participants have the greatest sense of climate change being important were also disempowering at a personal level. These images were said to drive feelings of helplessness, remoteness, and lack of control”.

Conversely, the researchers also found that the images “making participants feel most able to do something about climate change did not hook their interest in the issue and were more likely to make people feel that climate change was unimportant”. Finding the right balance clearly requires some thought. O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole recommended that dramatic representations of climate change be partnered with imagery that illustrates personal relevance and efficacy.

Sense of self

How people respond to negative information regarding environmental impacts is not just dependent on how the information is presented. In fact, the same information can have a polarising response depending on the extent to which people’s self-esteem or personal identity are linked to the environment.

Brook in 2011 noted that when presented with negative feedback regarding their ecological footprint, “…participants who based their self-esteem on environmentalism were marginally more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviour”, whereas “…participants who did not base their self-esteem on environmentalism were significantly less likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviour after negative… feedback. ”

The effect is not limited to feedback regarding environmental impact. Fritsche and Hafner in 2012 observed a similar polarising response in terms of environmental concern when research participants were reminded of their own mortality .

For me, this research highlights the importance of being self-aware and not assuming that others will be motivated in the same way that I am.

Political values

Returning to Lynne’s speculation on Mr Abbott’s response, different responses to the same information has also been explored in relation to political values.

In a US study on energy efficiency, participants were given $2 to purchase a light bulb, and any money they did not spend on the light bulb they kept for themselves. Their choice was between incandescent and compact fluorescent light bulbs that produced equivalent brightness.

Participants were split into four groups based on the relative cost of the globes and whether or not the CFL was labelled with a “Protect the Environment” sticker. In one pair of tests the bulbs had the same price ($0.50), and in the other pair, the CFL bulb was more expensive ($1.50) than the incandescent bulb ($0.50). All participants were given the same technical information about the two light bulb options – the CFL bulb lasts for 9000 more hours and reduces energy costs by 75 per cent. Participants also completed a survey that ranked how politically conservative (right) they were or not (left).

When the bulbs were the same price, the label had no effect. Almost all participants chose the CFL bulb, suggesting that long-term economic considerations dominated their choice. In contrast, when the CFL bulb was more expensive than the incandescent bulb, the sticker and political values had a significant effect.

When the CFL was environmentally labelled, 30 per cent of people who were politically conservative (right-leaning) chose the CFL. However, when the label was absent, 60 per cent – twice the proportion of conservative people – chose the CFL. Only the most politically left leaning showed a reduction when the label was absent – reducing by about 10 per cent.

The researchers found in a related study that people across the political spectrum all regarded energy cost and security as important reasons for undertaking energy efficiency, whereas climate change was viewed with differing levels of importance by each end of the political spectrum. As a result, the researchers recommend using universally regarded drivers to promote pro-environmental behaviour, rather than potentially contentious drivers such as climate change.

So what does all this mean?

For me, this research is particularly instructive for environmentally passionate technical people, which I consider myself to be. Before reading these studies and others, I would most likely have tried to motivate people using techniques that would motivate me. The consequences being that my efforts may have been wasted on those already like me (that is, I would have been preaching to the converted), or I may have had a demotivating effect on those not like me.

These days, rather than projecting my own values, I try to make sustainability meaningful for my audience.

Gerard Healey is Buildings ESD Leader, Southern Buildings, Arup

3 replies on “Gerard Healey on the lightbulb moments of change”

  1. On this point about the ideology surrounding climate change in some sections of society, the president of the American Meteorological Society just published a book that deals with this topic, called “Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals About Us”

    The blurb from the book’s Amazon page opens with:

    “It is generally assumed that, in polite company, you don’t talk politics, religion, or money. But in recent years, it seems “climate change” needs to be added to that list. Incorporating all of the above, few topics can divide a dinner party faster. Yet, while much ink has been spilled on both sides of the issue, few have considered the debate itself and what it reveals about modern culture.”

  2. The lights went out in Oz when the common people were “blindsided” by the spoken words (alas, not written) by a climate denier and now a continual and habitual denier of his own campaign lies.

    Where are the memory banks to help “out” this parliamentarian disrupter?

    Oz has so many positives to explore and promote. Oz must now await the removal of “Mr Climate Crap”, along with his associates who value their own short sighted entitlements, before present and future generations.

  3. Very interesting observations and research Gerard. I guess what made the film I discussed in my article stand out for me was the fact it did offer solutions to global warming, not just predictions of devastation, which, as you point out, are often disempowering.

    And of course my ponderings on what Tony Abbott might think were part of a wider question of why there is such resistance to act when it comes to carbon emissions. But climate change has clearly become synonymous with ideology in some countries and the message received regarding its effects, as well as the reaction to that message, is vastly different according to a person’s particular idelogical standpoint. This is especially true in an economy like Australia’s with such a stong vested interest in fossil fuels.

    In Singapore, where there is no such vested interest, but instead a need to find solutions and create new innovative industries, idelology doesn’t appear to get in the way.

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