Research & Insights

Guilt May Increase Support for Climate Action

New research out of Cornell University suggests that when people feel guilty, they’re more likely to support some climate policies, particularly those targeting businesses blocking climate progress.

The findings come from a study conducted by researchers Hang Lu and Jonathon P. Schuldt that was published in the June 2015 journal, Climatic Change. Lu and Schuldt found that when participants are made to feel guilty about something they did in the past, they’re more supportive of policies and actions – like boycotts – that punish businesses that oppose action on the climate.

The study involved two steps. Participants were first asked to complete an exercise where they wrote a short essay about an event in their life that made them feel either angry or guilty (“so that someone reading this might even feel angry/guilty just from learning about the situation”). Meanwhile, a control group was asked to write about their evening routine. Participants also gave demographic information, including political affiliation.

Then, participants read one of two articles about the impacts of climate change on the prevalence of Lyme disease, one detailing an increase in Lyme disease in the United States and another detailing an increase in France. Participants ranked how much they supported a series of policies designed to deal with climate change. Some policies targeted individuals, while others targeted “companies that are opposing steps to reduce global warming.” Participants also indicated how willing they were to pay more on their electric bill to support renewable energy and to boycott companies that opposed climate change policies.

The researchers found that – overall – remembering feelings of guilt was a strong predictor of support for climate policies that punish industry, but not individuals. “[C]ompared to the control condition, participants who were induced to feel guilty reported greater support for climate change policies that targeted industry,” the researchers explain.

Why the connection between a feeling of guilt and a desire to punish industry over individuals? The researchers suggest that “[g]uilt may not only lead people to hold themselves responsible for negative outcomes, but it may also lead them to attempt to purge their guilt and responsibility by scapegoating others,” such as industry, the researchers explain.

“These findings suggest that emotionmay play an important role in guiding how the public processes and reacts to informatioabout climate change,” write the researchers. “Results from the present experiment suggest that (basic) emotions (like joy, fear, surprise, and guilt) may be capable of exerting differential influences on the publics support for climate policy proposals that vary by political partisanship.”

Climatic Change

Hang Lu and Jonathon P. Schuldt, Cornell University

Posted: December 7, 2015
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