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?  

Study details:

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.   

Research findings:

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.  

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.  


Read the full report 


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.