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
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.