Climate change is no longer just a prediction for the future – it is happening now. And yet there is still a shocking level of ‘unhealthy scepticism’ amongst the public. In the USA, for example, around 28% of the population rejects the scientific consensus around the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Furthermore, even across those who do accept the facts, individual engagement with the issue is low. Why is this? For a while, climate science communication was informed by something called the information deficit hypothesis. This hypothesis proposed that if people were well educated enough about the science behind climate change, they would not only accept it, but also act to mitigate its negative consequences. Unfortunately, this has not worked. As someone who is passionate and excited about science, it breaks my heart to say this, but I have become convinced that ever clearer explanations of climate science to a non-scientific audience – particularly when it comes to presenting statistical evidence – is unlikely to produce significant behavioural change. Strangely, despite a phenomenon of people accepting numerical information as fact more readily, when it comes to climate statistics, the authoritative power of numbers fails to convince. There are explanations as to why this is, but that is not the focus of this post. The focus here is on a fascinating alternative to climate statistics, and it involves the power of story telling.
Emotion powers action like nothing else, and this is essentially the promise of story telling as a medium for climate change education. Stories have already been shown to be effective in promoting pro-social behaviours in previous research, so why not pro-environmental behaviours? Researchers Morris et al. (2019) set out to test story telling for exactly this purpose.
How does it work?
Narrative transportation is a concept used to describe the way the reader – or listener – of a story has a kind of proxy personal experience through identification and empathy with a main character. Typically, a story will involve one or more main characters who go on a literal and/or psychological journey, and meet obstacles along the way which must be overcome in order to achieve some kind of important goal, outcome or resolution. The potential for stories to provide an impetus for pro-environmental behaviours comes from the fact that narrative transportation has been shown to elicit higher levels of emotional arousal than other forms of information dissemination. It turns out that the vivid experiences received via narrative transportation are effective vehicles to learning. The key is in the elicitation of emotion and empathy with the story characters. Could stories help us inspire people to pro-environmental behaviour in a similar way?
Let's do an experiment!
Morris et al. (2019) developed a three-stage experimental set up. I’m going to give you the summary here; but if you want the full detail, I’ve provided a link to their paper at the end of this post.
Participants in the experiment were assigned to either an informational presentation, an environmental story, or a control group where they read about the construction of a university building. After the reading task was over, they were led to a separate room to fill out a couple of surveys and while they were there, they were offered a glass of water. Observers noted several things at this point, such as who recycled their cup, whether they took a glass or a plastic cup to start with, who turned off a lamp above the computer they read from, and who signed up to a Green Peace news letter at the end. Not all the measures showed significant differences, but it was observed that those in the environmental story group were twice as likely to subscribe to a Green Peace news-letter, and the odds of someone recycling turned out to be almost twice that of the informational group, and almost three times that of the control group.
In another stage of the experiment participants viewed environmental videos, some of which had a high level of narrative structure containing all the elements of a good story, and some of which were more informational or documentary style. The participants were wired up to sensors whilst viewing, and the interesting thing here was that those who viewed the videos with high narrative content responded with a deceleration of their heart rate. This deceleration of heart rate was predictive of subsequent pro-environmental behaviours. Morris et al. (2019) interpreted this as a reflection of the emotion elicited by narrative transportation working together with cognitive processing of a threat that is not immediate, but potentially around the corner. The physiological response of participants who watched the videos with a narrative structure is congruent with how our bodies prepare for a possible danger: deceleration of the heart rate is a consequence of our brains signalling to our bodies to ‘optimise bodily budgets’ for when it really counts. In other words, we shift into a state of readiness for action. It is noteworthy that the same kind of physiological response was absent for viewers of the informational videos.
The take home message
Morris et al. (2019) provided some empirical evidence that ‘narratives structured as stories are better vehicles of persuasion than informational narratives’. It is interesting to note, though, that where Morris et al. (2019) collected self-report measures they failed to see a difference in environmental concern between the groups. Perhaps this points to the largely non-conscious nature of the processes that influence behaviour. Both narrative transportation and heart rate deceleration are not things we consciously choose or monitor. Their effects can take place at a purely implicit level. This would also fit with the finding that information disseminated through narrative transportation is less susceptible to counter-arguing. There are also questions around whether narrative transportation has the power to effect longer term behaviour change, such as lowered meat consumption and reduced air miles. Still, the potential for at least short-term applications is there. So, if you’re planning on running an environmental campaign any time soon, you might consider going out and finding yourself a damn fine story-teller!
Morris, S. B., Chrysochou, P., Christensen, J. D., Orquin, J. L., Barraza, J., Zak, P. J., & Mitkidis, P. (2019). Stories vs. facts: triggering emotion and action-taking on climate change. Climatic Change, 154(1-2), 19-36. doi: 10.1007/s10584-019-02425-6
Psychology researchers Schultz and Zelezny (1999) produced a study that caught my eye as offering some fascinating insights into how our underlying values could be influencing the kind of environmental concerns we have, and how these concerns drive our pro-environmental behaviours. The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, is just over twenty years old; but just as environmental issues have only grown in importance since then, so has the importance of understanding what motivates people to engage with those issues. Wesley Schultz has made important contributions to the field, so in this post I’ll give you the basic idea of his work on values and environmental concerns.
The basic idea
Schultz and Zelezny (1999) present a three factor model of environmental concerns. These factors are classified as egoistic, altruistic, and biospheric. Each factor represents an attitude that can motivate pro-environmental behaviour given the right kind of stimulus. For example, someone with the egoistic attitude might be motivated to recycle the packaging of a product if they were rewarded for it – perhaps with a free box of the product for every fifty packages they returned for recycling. Someone with the altruistic attitude might be more likely to recycle because they were moved to do so by the scenes of thousands of children on a climate march, prompting them to think of the kind of world they would like to leave to their children’s generation. Finally, someone with the biospheric attitude might recycle for the sake of marine wildlife, and as part of the overall fight to protect the health of the natural world. As you may have already noticed, these three environmental attitudes cluster around three objects of value; namely, self, other people, and the biosphere. So the idea is that pro-environmental behaviours are triggered when one of these objects of value is perceived as being under threat.
Schultz and Zelezny's (1999) study provides some empirical evidence in support of this model. Thousands of people from several countries were asked how important different consequences of harming nature were for them. These included consequences for oneself, ones family, and the wider natural world such as plants, birds and marine life. A factor analysis on the results showed how peoples’ concern for the consequences of environmental harm tended to cluster either around the consequences for themselves, or the consequences for other people, or the consequences for the wider natural world, supporting the idea that peoples' concern for the environment tends to be dominated by either egoistic, altruistic or biopheric concerns.
The inclusion of nature in Self
The inclusion of nature in Self measurement was also included in the questionnaire. This is an instrument developed by Schultz intended to measure the degree to which a person feels nature to be connected to their own life and sense of identity. Unsurprisingly, it was found that the more a person felt nature to be connected to their sense of self, the stronger was their biospheric attitude. Conversely, those who saw their self and nature as separate tended have their environmental concerns driven by the egoistic attitude.
For me, there are some important take home messages from Schultz and Zelezny’s (1999) research. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that egoistic, altruistic and biospheric concerns are mutually exclusive, I would like to suggest that a biospheric foundation for environmental behaviours is of greater utility because it is universally applicable. For example, a person with the egoistic attitude might protest against the opening of a local landfill out of concern for how this might effect the value of his house. A person with the altruistic attitude might sign a petition to stop local parents dropping their kids off to school in air polluting cars because the altruists are concerned for the health of all the primary school kids. Finally, someone with the biospheric attitude might join a political party in order to campaign for policy change in the face of the climate crisis because nature is so closely unified with their sense of self that ‘what happens to the land happens to us’. However, whilst the person with a biospheric attitude could equally be predicted to participate along side the egoist and the altruist in their causes, this prediction would be unlikely to function in both directions. For example, the person motivated by egoistic concerns, whilst concerned about the landfill, would be less likely to sign up to a political party that places environmental policy ahead of lowering income tax, since the latter lies closer to egoistical values. Therefore, getting people on board when it comes to living sustainably and in harmony with nature would be a lot easier if more people had the biospheric attitude.
The good news
Later work by Schultz (2007) suggests that an individual is not fixed within either egoistic, altruistic or biospheric concerns. Rather, the underlying values that drive a person’s environmental attitudes can change if a shift in that person’s identification with nature occurs. Schultz (2007) found that if contact with a natural environment was sustained for a certain amount of time, participants’ connectedness to nature, and their pro-environmental intentions, also increased. It seems to me, then, that a reasonable conclusion to draw from all this is that if you want to increase support for pro-environmental behaviours, the most effective long term strategy is likely be rest on more people connecting to nature in meaningful ways, to the point where nature is included in their sense of self.
Ultimately, it’s not about understanding what nature can do for us that will drive our concern for the health of our beautiful planet. It’s about understanding that nature is us and we are nature. When we damage the environment through pollution or unsustainable extraction of material resources, we damage ourselves – not metaphorically, but literally. This is the realisation that produces a biospheric attitude.
Schultz, W. P., & Zelezny, L. (1999). Values as predictors of environmental attitudes: Evidence for consistency across 14 countries. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 255-265. doi: 10.1006/jevp.1999.0129
I am fortunate to have almost immediate access to natural places where the only things I hear are the sound of the wind in the trees, the bubbly chatter of nearby streams, and the sweetness of birdsong all around. I have lived in cities in the past, but nearly twenty years ago I made a conscious decision to move to the edge of a national park. Can my yearning to be close to nature be explained by a simple life-style choice? Or was my re-location all those years ago a behaviour driven by something more fundamental? Researchers Daniel Baxter and Luc Pelletier would suggest the latter. After an extensive review of the literature on nature relatedness, Baxter and Pelletier (2019) came to the conclusion that there was strong support for the claim that nature relatedness is a human need, and that many aspects of our physical and psychological well-being depend on that need being fulfilled. This conclusion was reached by judging the findings of multiple studies against a set of criteria. What follows is a summary of those criteria and how they were met.
If nature relatedness is a human need, it should not only produce positive outcomes when present, but also negative outcomes when absent.
The positive benefits of nature connection to physical and mental health are robust and well established. Various forms of nature relatedness have been shown to positively impact on recovery from physiological stress, enhance and support psychological well-being, and enable recovery from cognitive and attention fatigue. However, for nature relatedness to be a need, it should do more than benefit people when present: it should result in pathological effects when absent. Evidence of such effects are abundant. For example, after controlling for socioeconomic status and other demographics, urban children have shown a higher prevalence of mood disorders, self-harming, dysfunctional communication and thought processes, Asperger disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and generalised anxiety disorder, than rural children. This suggests that growing up in an environment where nature is spare and less accessible leads to more pathologies during the developmental stage.
Especially interesting was one study that used monozygotic twins who had grown up together but lived separately in adult life. The study investigated the impact of green space around the twins' homes. After controlling for income, levels of exercise, local population size and the socioeconomic status of their neighbourhoods, it was found that the twins with less access to green space suffered significantly higher levels of depression and stress.
Adult studies have shown that those who enjoy 10% more green space than the average within a 1km radius of home show lowered prevalence rates of coronary heart disease, muscular complaints, depression, anxiety disorders, asthma, migraines and a number of infectious diseases.
So, it seems that there are physical and psychological benefits to be had from relatedness to nature at all stages of life, and a higher chance of pathology when we are cut off from the natural world.
If nature relatedness is really a fundamental human need, its effects on the human body and mind should be universal rather than culturally dependent.
If there is something fundamental about peoples’ need for a relationship with nature, then it should be apparent in one form or another across a variety of sociocultural groups. The need for nature relatedness should be universal. Whilst this is a harder argument to make, Baxter and Pelletier (2019) provide some evidence for this by having included in their evaluation studies from the USA, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the UK and Japan. Thus, the evidence they present can at least claim to have come from a variety of cultural contexts.
Nature relatedness should represent a need in itself - not just a derivative of another need.
What if the need for nature relatedness wasn’t so much about nature itself, but just about relatedness? After all, feeling connected to something greater than our individual selves is a typical nature experience which can even lead to numinous feelings of transcendence. This question was addressed by a study that found nature relatedness to be associated with a whole slew of psychological benefits (subjective vitality, positive affect, feelings of personal growth) even after controlling for benefits derived from other forms of connectedness (family, culture, friends etc). It seems therefore that there is something about nature relatedness that cannot be derived from just any type of connectedness.
Perhaps the benefits of nature relatedness are in fact derived from the physical activity associated with hiking and walking, both of which are known to produce physical and mental well-being; but studies have demonstrated that even when physical activity is taken out of the equation, the benefits of immersion in nature remain. Where physical activity has been a factor, it has also been shown that immersive experiences of nature elevate the measured benefits above those of physical activity alone.
The need for nature relatedness should be a driver for behaviours whose goal is to fulfill that need.
One study that supported this claim looked at Norwegian office workers. The study compared employees who had a window with a view next to their desks with those who did not. The results found that employees with no window view were five times more likely to place plants in their office space, and three times more likely to hang pictures of nature on their walls. This is just one example of the evidence supporting the idea that where nature is absent, we will proactively seek to compensate for that absence.
Baxter and Pelletier’s (2019) conclusions certainly rang true with my own personal experience, and it got me thinking about where the effort in promoting the value of the natural world should be focused. If anywhere, surely it should be focused on urban populations who may not even be aware that a lack of relationship to nature is an impediment to living life to the full. In a climate crisis, how can we expect people to fight, to make personal sacrifices, for something that is little more than an abstract idea? Never mind reforesting our national parks and farmlands – we need to reforest our urban landscapes. It isn’t enough to relate to nature as a climate statistic or a biology class. Nature must be known, and nature must be fallen in love with. What we love, we will surely protect.
For the sake of brevity, I have been selective in presenting what was an extensive literature review. For those interested in reading the source paper in full, I have provided the reference below.
Baxter, D. E., & Pelletier, L. G. (2019). Is nature relatedness a basic human psychological need? A critical examination of the extant literature. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 60(1), 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000145
Furthermore, you may be interested in a link to the organisation Cities4Forests. See if your city is a member. If it is, you could find out how you can get involved. If it isn't, you could write to your local authority and ask them to look into it.
I'm a social scientist and data analyst and I'm in love with nature. One Beautiful Earth is where I bring these roles together. I keep a regular blog where you can read all about the latest science behind nature connection and the psychology of human responses to environmental issues such as climate change and much more besides.