Skip to main content

Feel The Guilt, Save The Planet

Collective guilt regarding climate change can be a catalyst to individual action, but new research suggests eliciting that emotion can be tricky.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

You never call.

You never write.

And to top it off, you're not doing anywhere near enough to save the environment.

Unless you're a delegate to the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, you probably haven't gotten a call from your mother with that precise message. But new research suggests the emotion it is meant to elicit may prompt people to trade in that gas guzzler or get serious about recycling.

Never underestimate the effectiveness of guilt.

"I wouldn't want to overstate its power, but it's one tool we should consider if we want to motivate behavior," said social psychologist Mark Ferguson of the University of Calgary. "What we've found in the research we've done so far is that people's patterns of behavior seem to be almost identical to the patterns of guilt they experience."

Ferguson's research, which has just been published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, provides important information for governments, environmental organizations or anyone else grappling with the tricky issue of how to persuade people to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. He found catalytic feelings of collective guilt can be elicited, but only under certain conditions.

His work builds upon that of his co-author, Nyla Branscombe, Ferguson's doctoral supervisor at the University of Kansas. She published several papers on the notion of collective guilt and how it affects attitudes toward groups of people who have been wronged in the past.

"I wondered, what about things that are happening now or have impacts for the future?" Ferguson said. "Climate change seemed like a wonderful topic to look at through the lens of collective guilt.

"If you look in the media, stories about eco-guilt are always based on what I personally do. But you can equally feel guilt for what your group as a whole does. It's possible that might even be more potent when looking at climate-change behavior. I may think of myself as one little person (whose impact on the environment is negligible). But as a group, not only do we do a lot of harm, but we could also do a lot of good."

To explore this notion, Ferguson surveyed 79 volunteers approached in the student union of a large Midwestern university. Each read a short passage about climate change, which varied from person to person. Half of them were informed that global warming was caused by humans, while the other half were told it was a natural phenomenon.

In each of those groups, half were warned climate change would have major ramifications for humans in 50 years, including widespread flooding, drought and disease. The others were told the effects would be minor and localized. All the participants were asked whether they agreed with the information they had been presented. They then answered three questions about the extent to which they felt guilty about the greenhouse gas emissions produced by Americans.

The highest level of collective guilt was expressed by those who agreed that climate change is human-caused, but expressed the belief its effects will be relatively minor. That finding is somewhat counterintuitive, in that one might expect higher levels of guilt in those who foresee major disaster ahead.

"You might think that," Ferguson said. "But there are a number of theories that suggest if you have a situation you can't change, the emotion it elicits could be dissipated, reduced or directed somewhere else. The health-behavior people know this pretty well. Fear appeals can have a counterproductive effect." (For examples, see these studies on cigarette warnings and an ineffective anti-drug campaign.)

So it would appear that alarmist messages are a bad idea. Visions of an impending cataclysm may catch people's eye, but they seem to engender hopelessness and dull the feelings of collective guilt that can inspire action.

"In watching media coverage of climate change over the last couple of years, it seems like the message of doability has become more prominent," Ferguson noted. "I think (environmental activists) are becoming more conscious of the fact that we need to make people aware of this issue, but we also need to give them something to do."

So Al Gore was savvy in concluding his film An Inconvenient Truth with a message of hope. But Ferguson isn't so sure that the former vice president's other key appeal has as much power.

"At the end of Gore's movie, he says future generations will look back on us and the decisions we make. Is that framed in a way that will inspire action? We have another paper under review that tests the idea: If you think about future generations, does it make you want to do something regarding climate change? And is that a function of collective guilt?

"What we find is just thinking about future generations doesn't increase guilt much at all. The key is thinking about future generations as a part of us, a part of our group."

In an experiment, Ferguson asked one group of people to think about the ways in which Americans living 50 years from now will be just like Americans today. Those in another group were asked to think about Americans of the future as different from ourselves.

"When you get them to think about future Americans as similar, people are more willing to do these climate-change behaviors," he found. "The key is getting people to identify with members of future generations. People who think about future folks as similar to themselves are more likely to feel guilt about what their group has done and to want to do things to change it."

Without that sort of priming, is looking ahead 50 or 100 years too abstract a notion for people to become emotionally involved?
"Some people would say that," Ferguson replied. "My feeling is you can think about the future in a lot of different ways. If you think about your grandchildren and envision them having a better life, with great new technology, then you might be less willing to change your behavior. Why bother? It's all going to be good. But if you start thinking differently about the future, it could have an impact."

So Ferguson's research suggests collective guilt can inspire action, but only if people feel reasonably hopeful that things can get better. And appeals to consider the well-being of future generations can be effective, but only if they are framed in such a way that people personally identify with the generations to come.

But then, every mother knows guilt is effective only under certain circumstances. Why shouldn't that truism also apply to Mother Earth?

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.