State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

A Tip of the Psychological Scales, and What it Means for Conservation Efforts

By Laura Fitch

Polar Bear (Cub), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. (Alan D. Wilson)
Polar Bear (Cub), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. (Alan D. Wilson)

Imagine you are walking down the sidewalk and you are approached for a donation to an organization. Which do you donate more money to: an organization working to save the entire Arctic population of polar bears or one that emphasizes its efforts to help a single, struggling polar bear? Ezra Markowitz, an Earth Institute fellow and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) postdoctoral research scientist reveals the surprising answer in a new paper published in July of 2013 in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.

The paper, co-authored by Paul Slovic, Daniel Västfjäll, and Sara D. Hodges, highlights previously unexplored psychological challenges that impede environmental conservation and sustainability efforts. In the paper, titled “Compassion fade and the challenge of environmental conservation,” Markowitz and his colleagues demonstrate that individuals’ compassionate responses to non-human animals struck by tragedy or misfortune remain stagnant or even decrease as the scale of tragedy increases, a phenomenon the authors call “compassion fade.” The new work is the first to show that compassion fade emerges in the environmental domain, where the victims are not human (past work has only examined humanitarian disaster contexts, including starvation and natural disasters).

The new findings build on previous research which has shown that people tend to demonstrate more sympathy toward a single, identified victim than they do towards many (or even just two) victims.

For example, social scientists have found that most people are more willing to provide donations to help a single starving child than they are to help two, eight or many children (Slovic, 2007). And other research has shown differences in responses to varying death toll reports in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Dunn & Ashton-James, 2008)

Why does compassion fade happen? Previous studies indicate that the effect occurs in part because a single victim elicits a stronger emotional response in observers than does a group of victims (Kogut & Ritov, 2005; Slovic, 2007). Multiple mechanisms have been proposed to explain this finding. First, it is usually harder for people to take on the perspective of a group than that of an individual (Batson et al., 1997), in part because groups tend to be perceived as less cohesive than individuals, making it more difficult to identify and empathize with victims (Smith, Faro & Burson 2013). Second, when individuals know they will be asked to provide help in a situation that involves many victims (and thus which will not be fully solvable), some people preemptively down-regulate their emotional responses so as to not feel overwhelmed by the aid request (Cameron & Payne, 2011). Similarly, as the proportion of victims who are “reachable” decreases, people begin to have doubts about the impact of their efforts, discouraging helping (Baron, 1997).

In their research, Markowitz and his colleagues conduct three studies to examine the extent to which such processes are at work in the context of providing aid to non-human animals. In their first study, they find that people are more likely to volunteer time and donate money to help rebuild breeding platforms for an endangered stork population when the proportion of the local bird population to be helped is larger rather than smaller, even if the same total number of birds will be helped. In a second study, the authors show that a request for aid detailing the challenges facing a single, identified polar bear garnered larger donations than did requests outlining the challenges facing the polar bear population as a whole. Finally, in a third study, they find that actual donations made by study participants to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) decreased as the number of pandas in need of aid increased from one to eight.

Shows results from Study 3: As the number of pandas in need of aid increased, non-environmentalists provided significantly smaller donations to a charitable group working on their behalf. Environmentalists’ donations did not differ significantly as a function of the number of animals in need. Error bars show ± 1 standard error.
Shows results from Study 3: As the number of pandas in need of aid increased, non-environmentalists provided significantly smaller donations to a charitable group working on their behalf. Environmentalists’ donations did not differ significantly as a function of the number of animals in need. Error bars show ± 1 standard error.

Even a brief look back on recent history calls to mind humanitarian aid operations in which compassion fade undoubtedly played a role in public perception and action (like those of the Rwandan Genocide and East African famines), and the results of these operations can paint a bleak picture for intervention in the environmental realm. However, studies have also shown that some people are more susceptible than others when it comes to compassion fade, likely due to a number of factors including values, emotion-regulation ability, and cognitive processing style. The new study confirms this, showing specifically that in the environmental context, people who self-identify as environmentalists and non-environmentalists respond differently to aid requests. In all three studies, the researchers found that only non-environmentalists exhibited compassion fade, perhaps because the issues at hand had a greater personal resonance and salience for environmentalists.

“The challenge moving forward,” Markowitz says, “is finding effective ways to use our understanding of phenomena such as compassion fade to improve citizens’ engagement with the pressing environmental and other large-scale societal challenges we face.”

Drawing from their findings, Markowitz and his colleagues provide a number of possible pathways for overcoming compassion fade in the environmental context, including:

  • Work to increase perceptions that multiple individuals belong to a single cohesive group (e.g., focus on helping save a species, not all the members of the species);
  • Use narrative to prime environmentalist sentiments and individuate victims;
  • Encourage the public to make initial low cost commitments to environmental protection to enhance environmental identities;
  • Take advantage of interventions that increase direct contact with nature.

These novel findings provide a compelling new look at the psychology of environmental conservation and the ways in which existing solutions and campaigns could be more effective in reaching their goals. For example, although many environmental advocates find it tempting to highlight the large-scale nature of issues such as habitat destruction and climate change, the work by Markowitz and others suggests that less dire problem framings can be more effective when it comes to engaging the public on these issues. And now more than ever, with President Obama’s call for action on climate change, a growing conversation about extreme weather events, and a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claiming 95% certainty that human activity is the main cause of climate change, the time is ripe to explore new avenues for education, creating awareness and encouraging action on environmental issues.

Check out the complete paper by Markowitz and colleagues here.

Laura Fitch is a student at Barnard College studying Environmental Biology and Political Science, as well as an intern at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

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