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To Change Environmental Behavior, Should We Really Tell People the World Is Ending?

By Hal Hershfield and Elke U. Weber

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By highlighting the shadow of the past, we may actually help illuminate the path to an environmentally sustainable future.

This past week, a report leaked from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated with near certainty that the environmental changes from the last several decades have been caused by people. Perhaps not surprisingly, these types of reports have been met with media coverage that ranges from grim to apocalyptic. An earlier report by the IPCC prompted the fear-evoking 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. No less dire warnings about the planet's future abound today. With sea levels potentially rising three feet and average temperatures increasing five degrees by the end of the century, reports noted that cities such as New York and London would be seriously endangered, and mass extinctions could take place. But will ominous scenarios such as these cause people to change their environmentally unfriendly behavior? We think not.

In a paper to be published in Psychological Science, we propose that another way to influence people's behavior towards protecting the environment is to emphasize the long life expectancy of a nation, rather than its imminent downfall. Our thinking was sparked by theory from the Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott. In 1969, Gott visited the Berlin Wall and wondered how long it would remain in existence. Figuring that he had no special knowledge to make such a prediction, Gott reasoned that there was a simple way to determine its remaining time. If he were visiting the Wall 50 percent into its lifetime, then it would stand for another eight years (because it had already stood for eight years at that point). If, however, the Wall were just 5 percent into its lifetime, then it would stand for another 152 years. If it was 95 percent into its lifetime, it would remain for only another five months. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, 28 years old and solidly within the timeframe that Gott had predicted. (Using the same principle, Gott went on to forecast with about 95 percent accuracy the lifetime of 44 Broadway and off-Broadway shows). Gott's Principle, as it is now known, holds that the best estimate of a given entity's remaining duration is simply the length of time that it has already been in existence.

Read the full article as published in The Huffington Post.

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Hal Hershfield in an Assistant Professor of Marketing.