Crowd of people

Megan Sheils is a compulsive reader. She also actively supports about a dozen nonprofits and follows dozens more on social media. So you can bet this D.C.-based librarian has seen her share of headlines like “Five Ways to Green Your Beach Vacation” and “Is Your Back-to-School Routine Contributing to Climate Change?”

Such “you”-tailored messaging has become ubiquitous in environmental fundraising appeals, news media, blogs, and federal education lingo. And for a long time, that tactic made a lot of sense, considering the implications of global warming are so vast, and yet so few people take action. The general thinking seems to have been, Make it personal, and then people will care.

But lately, those personal appeals are more likely to elicit groans and sighs than clicks – at least from Sheils.

I don't want to know 5 simple ways I can do something. I want to know what we can change as a society. Click To Tweet

“They actually just make me feel sad, because I don’t want to know five simple ways I can do something – I want to know what we can change as a society,” she says. “Making it so simple and easy ends up just oversimplifying it – and almost dissipates our ability to collectively respond.”

Sheils is not alone in this perspective, if new research is any indication.

New study suggests ‘we’ over ‘me’

Are messages geared toward personal accountability effective? Enter Nick Obradovich, who recently earned his doctorate from University of California, San Diego, with a dissertation that explored the topic.

“For a while, I’ve been seeing various appeals for people to do things about climate change that explicitly or tacitly appealed to their personal role in causing and solving the problem,” he says. “Like, you drive your car, you eat meat, you fly – that’s all bad for climate change. But you can solve that by doing better.”

He and fellow Ph.D. candidate Scott Guenther wanted to see if this way of framing the conversation was working – and they designed a study to test that question.

They conducted three survey experiments, one with members of the National Audubon Society and two distributed through Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace for work where social scientists often find survey participants.

Respondents were randomly assigned to answer one of three short essay questions that prompted them to think about 1) how they personally cause climate change, 2) how people collectively cause climate change, or 3) how they go about their daily routines (the control group).

Then the researchers asked the participants how much money they would be willing to contribute to the Audubon Society’s climate change efforts. They found that among Audubon Society members, the group primed to think about collective responsibility expressed willingness to donate an average of $5.55 more than the control group. Remarkably, those primed to think about personal responsibility gave only roughly the same amount as the control group.

Among survey-takers at Amazon Mechanical Turk, members of the “collective group” said they would donate nearly 50 percent more money than the “personal” group, that is, about $7 more. The “collective” group also showed greater intent to reduce future carbon emissions.

Debunking the ‘you’ factor, one survey response at a time

Why didn’t personal reflection trigger more action?

Science says … more research is needed. But the study suggests two key hypotheses.

Hypothesis No. 1: I think, therefore I … do the opposite, and then shut down. The first hypothesis has to do with cognitive dissonance, which is Psych 101-speak for the feeling of discomfort that can arise when a person has beliefs or attitudes that seem to contradict each other. In this case, the vast majority of the study’s subjects accept that climate change is a reality – but forcing them to think about all the ways they are causing the problem makes them feel conflicted.

Obradovich says that’s especially true because many of the personal habits people listed – like driving less or changing their diet – aren’t easy to change. Thinking about making difficult changes can feel overwhelming and make people subconsciously distance themselves from the issue.

Study: Time to rethink personal guilt in climate communication. Click To Tweet

“Asking people to think about their personal role in the problem may have, in some senses, been demotivating in getting them to think about the problem,” Obradovich says.

Hypothesis No. 2: Too close for comfort. The other big potential reason “collective” trumps “personal” is called construal, a social psychology term for how people perceive and interpret something. In this case, the idea is that when climate change feels close rather than distant from us, then we may naturally focus on little things, like our own personal costs and benefits of action, as opposed to larger, more global threats.

And when those broader problems don’t feel relevant to the everyday life we’ve just been noodling over, then we may not be motivated to take any new action at all.

So what can we say right now? Cindy Frantz, a social and environmental psychologist at Oberlin College who was not involved in the Obradovich and Guenther research, says the study points to what social psychologists have long understood about the basic human need to belong.

“Humans are obligatorily social – we will die if we do not have other humans,” she says. “I think the collective is the most powerful psychological force at work.”

She says the new research resonates with other social science, which often shows that humans are better able to deal with threatening information if we have been affirmed by our community in some way.

“If you read the climate science, we’re [expletive],” she says. “So from a theoretical perspective, feeling like you are connected with something larger than yourself, as a core need, might make it easier to face the reality of the threat of climate change.”

The intersection between social psychology and climate science is still a relatively new area of inquiry, but Obradovich and Guenther’s addition to the research may help refute conventional wisdom that personal angles make for strong climate communication.

It’s time to look ahead, together

Does this all mean that it’s time to go collective or bust? Not quite. It seems both ways of communicating have their place.

While the Obradovich and Guenther study concludes that personal accountability may be “insufficient motivation,” it also suggests that the most persuasive way to inspire action would be to present climate change as a collective problem – and then highlight specific ways that individuals can contribute to the solution.

“The thing about climate change,” Frantz says, “is that individual action is meaningless – unless there’s a whole lot of it happening in collective form.”

This tension is perhaps one of the key reasons environmental communicators have been working so hard to ensure individuals feel power. But perhaps they’ve been doing too good a job.

“Ultimately we do need individual people to change the way they’re living – but we need that to be taking place on a really collective level,” says Frantz. “We also need things like a carbon tax, which is out of control of the individual.”

For Sheils’ part, she does actually abide by as many simple conservation how-tos as she can. “But it feels more hopeless when I don’t have something larger to connect it to. It’s like spitting in the wind to just say ‘Turn off the lights when you’re not home.’ I think, let’s do that, but not only that.”

She’s probably not the only person getting fed-up with the overwhelming focus on “you.”

“Just having an idea of what the larger, collective things are would make me feel like my personal responsibility actually matters,” she says. “It would put it into context.”

Sheils says she’d rather read stories like “Five federal bills that will change everything.”

“I want to know about big, collective ways to change,” she says.

Of course, there are places where “we” and “me” messaging already comes together for the win. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, may have nailed this all on its climate change page, where a headline asks “What can we do about it?” and then fourth in a list below it is the “What you can do” bit.

It remains to be seen when and how other environmental communicators catch this drift. After all, personal impact has had a long place of honor in the climate narrative – but it appears at least some of the collective “we” is ready for a new, more communal focus.

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