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May 18, 2016

The collective holds more appeal

It’s one of the biggest challenges for those who try to mobilise public support for action on climate change. How to move from accepting, intellectually, the case to change one’s behaviour in order to save the planet, to the point where actions take over from words. Some research, just published, might shed some new light on this long standing conundrum. It suggests that campaigners should shift the emphasis away from making appeals to an individual’s sense of personal responsibility and instead encourage a more collective perspective on the issue.


Motivating people to act on climate change is a constant struggle for governments and nonprofits. But a new study may have found how best to frame the issue to inspire people not just to act, but also to give.


In a study published in Climatic Change Wednesday, researchers found people may donate up to 50 percent more money to a cause when encouraged to think about a problem in collective terms, instead of appealing to personal responsibility. In other words, climate action campaigns like the ones Canada and the European Union have launched may do better when they call for us to act, instead of asking you to act.

“We’re operating on a lot of baked-in assumptions on how to motivate people,” lead author Nick Obradovich, a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of California, San Diego, told ThinkProgress. These assumptions are a problem not just for governments, but also for environmental campaigns seeking donations. “That could be a lot of money potentially lost,” Obradovich said.

“We’re operating on a lot of baked-in assumptions on how to motivate people.

To explore message efficiency, Obradovich and fellow political science Ph.D. student Scott Guenther surveyed members of the National Audubon Society, a wildlife conservation organization focused on birds, as well as members of the public viaAmazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online micro jobs venue.

Participants were randomly assigned to do one of three tasks for a one in 100 chance of winning $100. Some were asked to write a paragraph on how they personally cause climate change. Others were asked to write about how climate change is collectively caused, and the control subjects wrote about daily routines like brushing their teeth and didn’t mention climate change. After writing, participants were asked how much of the $100 they would be willing to donate to Audubon’s climate change efforts.

Among the 1,215 Audubon members, researchers found those writing about collective causes of climate change were willing to donate 7 percent more of their potential winnings relative to the control group, or about $5 more. Among 304 members of the public, the trend was similar for those writing about collective causes, though donations were 50 percent higher, or about $7 more than the control.

But most tellingly, those assigned to the personal responsibility task donated amounts that didn’t significantly differ from the control. Obradovich said that was surprising since both the collective and personal responsibility task referred to climate change.

“So something negative is going on,” said Obradovich. “We had hypothesized that thinking about climate change in any way would incline people to donate more to climate change, but that’s not what happened.”

Obradovich and Guenther then ran a follow-up experiment to see how powerful the effect of the collective treatment was. They contacted their original public sample and asked them again how much they’d be willing to give. People who’d written about climate change in collective terms were still willing to donate more than the others, even several days later.

“That also was quite surprising to us,” said Obradovich. “It’s not very common that treatments persist.” Obradovich and Guenther even did a similar survey experiment with a different group of 451 people, also recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, asking them how they might change their future climate-related behaviors. Again, the collective frame outperformed the others, producing the highest aspirations for reducing carbon emissions.

While the findings are revealing and significant for organizations hoping to inspire collective action or conservation funding, the pending question now is why people responded like this. Studies in the past have shown that there is something about the collective that appeals to people. For instance, in 2008 researchers found that hotel guests who learned that the majority of their fellow guests had reused their towels were 26 percent more likely to reuse when compared to those who saw the basic environmental protection message to recycle their towels. This may happen because people are more likely to follow the collective when uncertain about how to behave.

However, in this case there is no collective group to follow. If anything, there’s maybe guilt. But Obradovich said they tested for guilt and it didn’t seem to play much of a factor, so people may have given more to offset their negative emotions with the positive emotions associated with giving. But that’s just a theory. “We really need further study to be able to know with more certainty,” said Obradovich, adding this experiment needs to be duplicated and tested in the real world with a real campaign.

He is also quick to say that Audubon members and the so-called MTurk responders believed more strongly in the occurrence of climate change and its human causes than the average U.S. citizen. Which means it’s unclear if framing the problem of climate change collectively is more effective with people less inclined to support climate action. In any case, he said, “we should be more careful when we are crafting our outreach messages.”