New report highlights the scientific credibility of leveraging human emotions
Understanding emotions and using the science of human behavior to drive social change has always been essential to Rare’s work. In 1977, Paul Butler led a trailblazing campaign that leveraged emotions to save an endangered parrot on the island of St. Lucia. He used a mascot and community events to help St. Lucians take pride in the parrot and view it as a national treasure. Rare admired Butler’s behavioral approach and invited him to join the organization full-time. Together, Rare and Butler developed similar “Pride Campaigns” worldwide to help communities foster pride for native species and develop sustainable behaviors to protect local ecosystems.
Pride plays a visible role in inspiring conservation action—but what about other emotions?
In their new peer-reviewed Ecology & Society article, the Center for Behavior & the Environment’s Katie Williamson and Erik Thulin explore why harnessing people’s emotions is a central but undervalued tool for helping people adopt more sustainable behaviors. Drawing on a literature review of emotions’ functions throughout human evolution and a rich history of using emotions in Rare’s campaigns, the authors share “emotion-behavior pathways” that guide how environmental practitioners can harness specific emotions in specific contexts.
What question are we trying to answer?
How have emotions helped us adapt as a species, and how can we use emotions to encourage changes in environmental behavior?
The researchers wanted to help practitioners use emotions more effectively in behavior change campaigns by understanding each emotion’s function. The team created and analyzed a long list of emotions and their behavioral consequences to select the top six with the best potential to encourage environmental behavior change: fear, hope, the prospect of shame, pride, anger, and interest.
Williamson and Thulin identified unique emotion-behavior pathways related to each of the six selected emotions. They found that fear motivates people to avoid risks when they experience uncertainty or an immediate threat. Hope encourages people to start a behavior when they can achieve the desired outcome while facing a threat. The prospect of shame drives people to avoid a socially undesirable action when others might find out. Pride prompts people to show others what they have done when they have engaged in reputation-enhancing behavior. Anger pushes people to confront others when they experience or witness something against their values. Interest motivates people to seek information when something is novel and complex.
|Fear motivates people to avoid risks when they experience uncertainty or an immediate threat.||Fear appeals in public health campaigns reliably drove changes in attitudes, intentions, and behavior, especially when paired with high-efficacy messages (Witte and Allen, 2000). Similarly, people who experienced scenarios of natural and technological hazards experienced loss-based emotions such as fear, and pursued prevention strategies (Xie et al. 2011).|
|Hope motivates people to start a behavior when they can achieve a desired outcome while facing a threat.||Hope led to action on social, political, and environmental activism among people in Europe and the United States in a series of questionnaire studies and experiments (Ojala 2012, 2015, Greenaway et al. 2016, Wlodarczyk et al. 2017, Kleres and Wettergren 2017).|
|Prospect of shame
||The prospect of shame motivates people to avoid a socially undesirable action when others might find out.||Avoiding shame in behavioral games led to higher contributions in these games (Jacquet et al. 2011). Similarly, aversion to shame resulted in people voting to prevent others from seeing them as a non-voter (Panagopoulos 2010).|
|Pride motivates people to show others what they have done when they have engaged in reputation-enhancing behavior.||Pride boosted voting among high-propensity voters in social settings (Panagopoulos 2010) and consuming green products in online experiments to show commitment to a green identity (Antonetti and Maklan 2014, Schneider et al. 2017).|
||Anger motivates people to confront others when they experience or witness something that goes against their values.||Anger led people to take a cost on themselves to punish those who hurt them (Drouvelis and Grosskopf 2016) or even anonymous others (Nelissen and Zeelenberg 2009) in behavioral games.|
||Interest motivates people to seek information when something is novel and complex.||Interest focused and maintained attention in the classroom (Ainley et al. 2002, Hidi 2006, Harackiewicz et al. 2016) and was strongly correlated with engagement on topics such as national policies for climate change as well as perceived risks and hazards when people were surveyed (Sjöberg 2007, Smith and Leiserowitz 2014).|
Why it matters:
Understanding the role of emotions in our actions hasn’t received the credit it deserves. Many scientists still see emotions as ‘irrational’ drivers of behavior and do not differentiate among them. Emotions’ functions tell us a more complex story with opportunities to use them intentionally. And like other behavioral strategies, understanding the socio-cultural dimensions will influence their use. Knowing how to leverage specific emotions in certain contexts allows practitioners to design more effective conservation campaigns. Researchers and practitioners in the field should continue to test and grow the set of identified emotions within and outside of academic spaces to develop a complete account of emotion-behavior pathways that behavioral scientists can use to encourage environmental behaviors.
Want to learn more about the intersection of behavioral science and conservation? Explore Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment for resources, training, videos, and more.