Want your friends to help save the environment? Make them feel proud, not guilty

PRINCETON, N. J. — Environmental groups and advocates often try to push people to be more green through ads attempting to make viewers feel guilty for not doing more. But a recent study by researchers at Princeton University found that focusing on the upside of being proactive is more effective.

That is, demonstrating feelings of pride associated with “going green” rather than playing the guilt card motivates people more strongly to make smarter environmental decisions. Previous research has revealed that the anticipation of feeling a particular emotion affects decision-making, especially when deciding on something that will directly affect others.

“In simple terms, people tend to avoid taking actions that could result in negative emotions, such as guilt and sadness, and to pursue those that will result in positive states, such as pride and joy,” says study co-author Elke Weber, a professor in energy and the environment at Princeton, in a release. “Because most appeals for pro-environmental action rely on guilt to motivate their target audience, our findings suggest a rethinking of environmental and climate change messaging” to harness the power of positive emotions such as pride.

For the study, Weber’s team recruited 987 participants online to find out if they were more motivated by the pride they would feel if they took an environmentally-friendly action or by the guilt they would feel by not doing so. Some participants received a one-sentence reminder atop their screens that their choices could lead to guilt or pride while they completed a survey. Others were presented a series of  situations  that were either pro- or anti-environment and asked how each would make them feel. A third group was tasked with writing an essay about how proud or guilty they’d feel over a real environmental decision in the near future.

Participants were then questioned about five scenarios that had either environmentally friendly or environmentally unfriendly options. One scenario forced them to choose between an outdated sofa made from non-toxic fabrics, or a modern sofa made from fabrics with toxic chemicals. Another scenario offered participants up to 14 green amenities for an apartment, but each one came with an additional $3 in rent per month.

“Overall, participants who were exposed to anticipation of pride consistently reported higher pro-environmental intentions than those exposed to anticipated guilt,” says Weber.

The study was published in the academic journal PLOS One.

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