To combat climate change, what’s more effective, collective guilt or personal guilt?  Neither.

To combat climate change, what’s more effective, collective guilt or personal guilt? Neither.

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Two political scientists, Obradovich and Guenther, (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301716707_Collective_responsibility_amplifies_mitigation_behaviors) have conducted an experiment that they say, “suggests that emphasizing collective responsibility [rather than personal responsibility] for climate change may be more effective at altering climate-related behaviors and attitudes.” This would be an interesting conclusion if true. We certainly can’t tell from this research.

People do what they anticipate will bring the most reward or avoid the most pain. They do not choose an action on the basis of historical responsibility. Any serious attempt to encourage climate-related behavior change would focus on rewards of taking that climate-related behavior or the danger of not taking it.  Dale Carnegie said, “The only way on earth to influence anyone is to talk about what they want and to show them how to get it.” This experiment ignores both what people want and how to get it. Rather this research explores the impact of how we assign blame for the current situation.

Obradovich and Guenther did not test a realistic persuasion attempt. They didn’t test the impact of a message that “emphasized” collective responsibility for climate change versus one that “emphasized” personal responsibility. Instead, they tested the impact of something that is completely infeasible in practice, requiring people to write an essay on collective responsibility for climate change versus requiring people to write an essay on personal responsibility for climate change. The impact of forced essay writing in no way predicts the impact of receiving a message.

What about the behavioral dependent variable—donation to the efforts of the National Audubon Society to combat climate change? The Audubon’s efforts seem to address what we do collectively and not what we do personally to increase climate change.   The scientists found that requiring people to write an essay on collective responsibility for climate change rather than personal responsibility results in a greater donation to efforts addressing collective climate-related behavior. Is that a surprise?

Finally, the scientists examine the impact of required essay writing on reported intention to reduce one’s own climate-change-causing behaviors in the future. First, as Wicker showed many years ago, the connection between attitude and behavior is weak or nonexistent.  Second, the attitude statement is worded in a way that clearly tips the hand of the experimenters. The answer the experimenters felt was most appropriate was obvious to participants. Those who were required to write an essay on collective responsibility for climate change were slightly more likely to go along with what the experimenters wanted them to say.   Incidentally, the charts in their paper speak of “reducing future emissions” but the attitude statement does not. It is not clear which is correct. It doesn’t matter.

We can persuade people to take action to reduce climate change but we need to understand the rewards that might motivate that action. Experiments in forced essay writing aren’t much help.

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