Positive Emotions and Behaviour Change

We’re delighted to welcome Beatrice Conte as our first contributor to Good Moves. Beatrice works for the Consumer Decision and Sustainable Behavior Lab at the University of Geneva. Her research aims to answer to following questions: why do people engage in or disengage from environmental-friendly behaviour? and how do conflicts of values and emotions influence decisions that have an impact on the natural environment? In this article, Beatrice talks about harnessing the power of positive emotions to encourage sustainable behaviour change.

“If we had wanted to design an ideal problem that cognitive biases would make insoluble, we would have chosen the problem of climate change”, said Olivier Sibony in a recent interview for Good Moves.

Having spent the last five years investigating the psychological barriers to climate change action, I cannot agree more with this sentence. 

Already back in 1997, Stephen Gardiner, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington, had defined climate change as the “perfect storm”. While the personal costs of engaging in a more sustainable lifestyle are certain and upfront, the benefits appear to be uncertain and spread over time. For most people, the consequences of global warming seem so far in space and time that it is almost impossible to relate them with everyday experiences. Unlike other societal issues such as poverty, healthcare availability, or racial discrimination, climate change is just too psychologically distant to prompt a deep emotional response. Citing Elke Weber, Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, I believe that this is the heart of the problem: climate change does not scare us enough

Although climate change seems too abstract to spark any emotional reaction, research has shown that emotions towards climate change are among the most powerful drivers of sustainable behaviour. People who are more worried about climate change are also more willing to use public transports, save electricity at home, donate to a pro-environmental charity or support public climate policies. As a result, traditional climate change communication and behavioural strategies have focused on inducing or amplifying negative emotions to motivate sustainable action. Think, for example, of the WWF campaigns showing desperate images of melting glaciers and dying polar bears. 

Focusing on negative climate change communication, however, has serious drawbacks: 

  • First of all, the human brain can only take on a ‘finite pool of worry’. That is, we can only worry about a certain number of issues at a time. For instance, as the Covid-19 crisis escalated and worry about public health increased, concern about climate change decreased. While this resulted from a perfectly functional mechanism that helped us focus on the most urgent problem, it relegated the discourse about climate change to a lower priority. 

  • Second, repetitive negative information increases the likelihood of triggering psychological defence mechanisms of denial. It is hard to accept that our world is irreparably changing and that it is our responsibility. When we are reminded of that, the easiest way to handle the information is to deny or ignore it. For these reasons, traditional climate change communication and behavioural strategies based on leveraging negative emotions may not be the best tools to encourage people towards sustainable behaviour change in the long-term.

So, if negative emotions don’t work, what about positive emotions? Although using positive emotions to communicate something as dangerous and risky as climate change sounds counterintuitive, this unconventional perspective holds tremendous potential. Recent studies in psychology have shown that both people who are worried about climate change, and people who feel hopeful about climate change mitigation are likely to engage in sustainable action. Sustainable behaviour makes people feel satisfied and rewarded. According to the ‘warm glow’ effect, doing something good for the environment, for example recycling correctly, can boost our motivation by creating feelings of pride, fulfilment and pleasure. Overall, it seems that positive emotions have a twofold function: they connect us to nature and they reward us for nurturing this connection.

In my own research, I find that positive emotions are boosted by a sense of personal control: when people feel in control of their own impact on the environment, they are more likely to experience stronger positive emotions towards sustainability. That is, motivation to adopt a sustainable behaviour increases when we are able to quantify our positive impact on the environment, creating a positive reinforcement loop that fuels behaviour change in the long-term.

If talking about the problem is crucial, then, talking about mitigation achievements appears to be just as important. Coupling traditional communications about climate change risks with positive news related to climate mitigation could boost the public’s hope and confidence in a successful sustainable transition. Celebrating the success of environmental programs could give meaning to the collective effort that is needed from all of us, and strengthen our sense of community.

These uplifting emotions would help overcome the learned helplessness associated to climate change, boosting our motivation to contribute to the greater cause. This is what happened, for example, when the press started covering the first successes of The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organisation that is developing advanced technologies to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans. Encouraged by the positive news, people started to organise small beach clean-ups in their local communities, giving birth to a movement that spread globally in a very short period of time. To these days, it is still common practice in many places around the world to regularly organise beach clean-ups, often involving the younger generations to educate them about environmental protection.

Another very important point is that we are usually told that, to fight climate change, every action counts. The behaviours to change, and the way to do it, remain up to our individual choices. However, not knowing what the consequences of these choices are can be demotivating. Does it really make a difference if I don't take my car to work today? What happens if I do not recycle this stack of paper? Most of the time we don’t know the answers to these questions. That’s why giving people feedback about their sustainable choices can be a very effective technique to get them engaged actively and consciously. It contributes to creating a sense of meaning by connecting one’s actions to direct consequences. And when the consequences are positive, every action becomes rewarding. 

People should start associating future sustainable actions to positive emotions, generating a positive reinforcement loop that can fuel behaviour change in the long-term. This mechanism was behind the success of the 2019 H&M ‘Conscious Collection’ campaign. The brand made an ad that, instead of highlighting the problems related to plastic pollution, showed consumers the positive side of wearing sustainable clothing made from PET recycled bottles. Data showed that among the ads of 100 sustainable corporations, H&M’s most successfully captivated viewers in terms of numbers and engagement.

To conclude, positive emotions for sustainable behaviour change is a new and interesting tool for communicators and practitioners. Finding ways to leverage positive emotions as motivators of sustainable behaviour change is a very promising avenue for behavioural interventions. Given the potential long-term benefits of the reinforcement loop that positive emotions can create, initiating this mechanism could help drive that sustained behaviour change that we so urgently need to fight climate change.


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GreenBiz, https://www.greenbiz.com/article/3-ads-about-sustainability-got-it-right-according-data
Mayer, B. (2014). State responsibility and climate change governance: A light through the storm. Chinese Journal of International Law, 13(3), 539–575. 
Venhoeven, L. A., Bolderdijk, J. W., & Steg, L. (2020). Why going green feels good. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 71, 101492. 
Weber, E. U. (2006). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does not scare us (yet). Climatic Change, 77, 103–120.