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To Encourage Positive Environmental Outcomes, Emphasize a Long Future, Not Impending Doom

hal hershfield

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

New Study from NYU Stern and Columbia Professors

As scientists and politicians review the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in Stockholm this week, a recent study (forthcoming in Psychological Science) suggests that the usual apocalyptic forecasts will not prompt people to change their environmentally unfriendly behavior. NYU Stern Professor Hal Hershfield and his colleagues H. Min Bang and Elke U. Weber of Columbia University find that the best way to encourage environmentally friendly behavior is to emphasize the long life expectancy of a nation, not its imminent downfall.

After analyzing 131 countries, the researchers found that older nations scored higher on an index of environmental performance, and the results remained significant when controlling for factors such as GDP and political stability.

Environmental decisions rely on making tradeoffs: people must choose whether to sacrifice in the present for potential benefits that might not be felt until much later. If people perceive their country or planet's remaining time to be very short, then rationally they don’t place too much importance on making present-day sacrifices. But if a long future is seen, sacrifices today for a brighter tomorrow for themselves and their offspring make sense.

After completing their analysis of 131 countries, the researchers conducted a study in a laboratory setting, manipulating how old the US seemed by comparing its starting point (1776) to a more recent landmark or an older landmark. Study participants who were led to believe that the US was an older country donated significantly more money to an environmental organization than participants who thought the US was a younger country.

Overall, the researchers’ findings can be explained by Gott’s principle, a physics principle which 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. Applying the principle to nations, the underlying assumption is that a longer past implicitly suggests a longer and less uncertain future, because a country that has endured through the years may be robust enough to continue existence longer than a newer country.

Professor Hershfield says, “Our research suggests to move away from end-of-world scenarios and to emphasize instead the various ways in which our country – and our planet – has a rich and long history that deserves to be preserved. By highlighting the shadow of the past, we may actually help illuminate the path to an environmentally sustainable future.”

To speak with Professor Hal Hershfield, please contact him directly at 650-269-9799 or hal.hershfield@stern.nyu.edu or contact Joanne Hvala (212-998-0995, jhvala@stern.nyu.edu) or Anna Christensen (212-998-0561, achriste@stern.nyu.edu) in NYU Stern’s Office of Public Affairs.