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What Will You Leave Behind? How Personal Legacy Affects Pro-environmental Behavior

Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

It is widely recognized that if we want to avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change in the future, significant mitigation activities must be undertaken in the very near future. Yet we as humans often have a difficult time making decisions about future events, in part because of how distant the future feels from our vantage point in the present. In psychological terms, this is called temporal distance, and it’s no doubt part of the reason why Americans rank climate change as a low priority on the national to-do list (it also helps explain why we’d much rather spend money now rather than put it toward future retirement). However, new research that examines how individuals want to be remembered finds that there are ways to use people’s motivation to leave a positive legacy to counteract the challenge of temporal discounting, and to encourage pro-environmental behaviors to mitigate climate change.

Researchers at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at the Earth Institute published new results this week in the journal Psychological Science in a paper titled, “How will I be remembered? Conserving the environment for legacy’s sake.” The authors, Lisa Zaval, Ezra Markowitz, and Elke Weber, hypothesize that helping people think about their personal legacy can be a powerful mechanism to overcome barriers associated with temporal distance in the context of environmental conservation (including climate change mitigation). “We were interested in finding a way to turn what is often viewed as a barrier to conservation—long time-horizons and temporal distance—into a facilitator of positive, proactive action, and we thought that leveraging legacy motives might be a great approach,” says Markowitz, now an assistant professor of environmental decision-making at University of Massachusetts Amherst. In two experiments, legacy is treated as a motivating factor that can be tapped into to promote pro-environmental behavior.

Results from the pilot study showing mean climate change believe, behavioral intention, and amount donated to charity as a function of legacy motives. Shaded bands represent 95% confidence intervals.
Results from the pilot study showing mean climate change believe, behavioral intention, and amount donated to charity as a function of legacy motives. Shaded bands represent 95% confidence intervals.

The researchers conducted two studies – a pilot study and a full experiment. The pilot study had 245 diverse participants from around the United States. It assessed individual difference in legacy motives, beliefs about climate change, and willingness to take pro-environmental action by donating up to ten dollars to Trees for the Future, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.  Results from the pilot study showed that people who were highly motivated by their personal legacy showed greater pro-environmental attitudes and were more likely to believe in taking pro-environmental actions compared to those who weren’t as motivated by legacy. Participants with higher legacy motivations also donated a larger amount of their ten dollars to the environmental nonprofit versus those that had lower legacy motives.

The follow-up experiment had 312 diverse participants from across the United States and tested whether priming (or making salient) a person’s legacy motives positively influenced their environmental engagement. This testing was completed by assigning participants to one of two conditions: a Legacy condition, in which participants wrote a short essay describing what they would want to be remembered for by future generations, or a Control condition in which participants did not write an essay. The participants then answered two sets of questions regarding their beliefs about climate change and willingness to take pro-environmental action. Following the questions, participants were given the opportunity to donate a portion of their ten dollars to an environmental organization, as in the pilot study.

Results from the full experiment show that participants who wrote the essay about their legacy reported both higher legacy motives and greater belief in climate change than those who did not write the essay. The researchers also found that those who were primed about legacy were more likely to engage in behaviors to mitigate climate change.  Finally, participants who thought about their legacy donated more of their earnings to an environmental organization than those who did not think about legacy.

The results of this research show that the temporal distance associated with climate change does not have to be a barrier to engagement on the issue. In fact it indicates just the opposite: the long time horizon for addressing climate change can be leveraged rather than viewed as an obstacle. By making people aware of their desire to leave behind a positive legacy, behavior may shift towards actions that are beneficial to future generations and someone’s image of his or herself.  “Legacy motives may represent an important and currently underutilized pathway to promoting pro-environmental action. Simple prompts may effectively promote conservation by framing environmental decisions as “win-win” for both present and future generations,” says Zaval, a post-doctoral research scientist at CRED.

Lead author Lisa Zaval is a post-doctoral research scientist at CRED. Her co-authors were Ezra M. Markowitz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Decision-Making, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts Amherst and former Earth Institute Fellow, and Elke U. Weber, a co-director of CRED, Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia Business School and professor of psychology and Earth Institute professor at Columbia University.

Funding for this research was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 from the National Science Foundation awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. Funding was also provided by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies Communicating Uncertainty research community at Princeton University.

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