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To reach climate skeptics, tap into self-interested values

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To reach climate skeptics, tap into self-interested values

Researchers designed four different versions of a pro-environmental poster to demonstrate the need to move beyond one-size-fits-all messages
March 19, 2024

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Environmental messages can reach people who are only looking out for themselves – but only if the messages tap into people’s drive for personal security or fun, according to a new study. The findings add heft to an emerging line of research that suggests appealing to personal values can help get skeptics on board with climate action.

Past research has shown that people’s values influence their attitudes about climate change. Some people are motivated by a drive to benefit others (altruistic values) or appreciation for nature (biospheric values) – which together can be classified as self-transcendent values. Others are motivated by a drive to increase their own resources (egoistic values) or doing what feels good (hedonic values) – which are both self-enhancement values.

In general, people who hold self-enhancement values are less supportive of environmental efforts and climate action that people who hold self-transcendent values. But a few studies have hinted that for people who hold self-enhancement values, directly appealing to their desire for personal security or pleasure can bring them around to various pro-environmental positions.

In the new work, researchers conducted two surveys with a total of over 1,300 participants. They administered a brief questionnaire to gauge participants’ environmental values, then showed them a series of four posters and asked them to rate each one.

 

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The posters depicted a picture of the Earth taken from space accompanied by text reflecting one of four different types of values:

  • “Because everyone will benefit—Protecting our planet means: Doing something good for everyone—Save our planet” (altruistic values)
  • “Because nature is important—Protecting our planet means: Preserving nature—Save our planet” (biospheric values)
  • “What’s good for the planet is good for you—Protecting your planet means: Protecting your own well-being—Save your planet” (egoistic values)
  • “Because earth is where the fun is—Protecting our planet means: Doing everything you like in the future—Save your planet” (hedonic values)

In the simplest terms, people who hold altruistic or biospheric (that is, self-transcendent) values respond to any sort of pro-environmental message, the researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports. But people who hold egoistic or hedonic (that is, self-enhancement) values only respond to environmental appeals that tap into these values.

“Thus, it is not contradictory, but rather entirely possible, for individuals to agree with pro-environmental efforts for selfish or self-enhancement reasons, such as safeguarding their own well-being and standard of living,” the researchers write.

When the researchers performed another analysis to control for a person’s overall agreement with pro-environmental messages, it emerged that people who hold self-transcendent values respond best to posters that match their values.

This second analysis also indicated, in one study, that posters featuring self-enhancement values could actually be a turn-off for people who hold self-transcendent values and, in the other study, vice versa.

“Our findings may hint that value-incongruent messaging might even lead to more disagreement with pro-environmental efforts, also highlighting the potential negative impact of unspecific (‘one-size-fts-all’) appeals,” the researchers write. However, they note that such negative impacts of mismatched messages are likely to be small.

An important next step is to find out how the relationship between personal values and agreement with different environmental messages translates into real-world behavior such as environmentally friendly actions or support for policy, the researchers say.

Source: Birkenbach M. and B. Egloff “Effects of matching climate change appeals to personal values.” Scientific Reports 2024.

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