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He Was a Fine Man—He Recycled

Thinking about how you’ll be remembered by future generations can prompt pro-environment behavior.
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(Photo: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock)

Most Americans believe that climate change is occurring. But as a recent Pew survey confirms, we don’t view it as a high-priority problem. After all, we reason, its most severe impacts won’t be felt for decades. So why change our behavior now?

New research points to a simple way to shift this maddening mindset. A team led by Columbia University psychologist Lisa Zaval finds people take the issue of environmental sustainability much more seriously if they have been thinking about their legacy.

“When people’s latent motivation to leave behind a positive legacy is made salient ... behavior shifts toward favoring the well-being of future others,” the researchers report in the journal 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.”

The desire to leave a positive legacy appears to be "a positive mechanism by which to circumvent the otherwise detrimental psychological barriers that inhibit otherwise preventative action on climate change."

Zaval and her colleagues Ezra Markowitz and Elke Weber describe a study featuring 312 Americans recruited online. Half of them began by writing “a short essay describing what they want to be remembered for by future generations.” They were instructed to consider “ways in which you will have a positive impact on other people, skills or knowledge you will teach others, or aspects of your personality that you would like to be remembered for.”

Members of that group spent an average of six minutes on their essay. The others skipped directly to the second part of the study, in which all participants responded to a series of statements assessing their beliefs about climate change, and their willingness to take pro-environmental actions.

Specifically, they expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such statements as “I am in favor of national policies and regulations that decrease fossil fuel burning, even if they increase energy and electricity costs today.” And they indicated how often they intended to perform a series of environmentally friendly behaviors over the following three months, including taking public transportation and buying “green” products.

The result: Those who had written about their legacy expressed significantly greater belief in climate change, and significantly stronger intentions to behave in Earth-friendly ways.

In addition, all participants were automatically entered into a lottery to win a $10 bonus. After filling out the survey, they were given the option to donate some or all of those winnings to the environmental organization Trees for the Future. Those who had thought about their legacy gave an average of $3.34, compared to $2.31 for those who had not.

The participants’ responses to a final set of statements directly measuring the importance they attach to leaving a positive mark on society confirmed that concern for their legacy pointed them in a pro-environment direction. The desire to leave a positive legacy, Zaval and her colleagues write, appears to be “a positive mechanism by which to circumvent the otherwise detrimental psychological barriers that inhibit otherwise preventative action on climate change.”

This is an encouraging study in that it takes a facet of human nature that has long been considered a roadblock to environmental action—our egotism—and shows it can be co-opted to promote sustainability. If the proliferation of selfies suggests our me, me, me fixation is higher than ever, this research suggests all that self-regard can be channeled into vitally important shifts in attitudes and behaviors.

So the next time you reach for the keys to your gas guzzler when you could walk to the store, think about which inscription you’d rather have on your tombstone: “Responsible citizen of the Earth" or “Helped create the hellhole we’re now living in.” Then proceed accordingly.

Your descendants will thank you.