Research & Insights

The Tree Huggers Got It Right: The Link Between Compassion and Conservation

New research out of Germany brings some good news for environmental advocates: Boosting your audience’s compassion levels may increase their environmentalist tendencies.

Researchers Stefan Pfattheicher and Claudia Sassenrath of Ulm University and Simon Schindler of Kassel University were interested in whether fostering feelings of compassion for other people could result in an increase in environmentalist attitudes. They designed a series of studies, reported in the March 2015 issue of the journal Environment and Behavior, to test whether higher levels of concern over the suffering of others lead people to consider the environment with more care.

The first study involved 101 students at a German university. It statistically explored the link between participants’ levels of compassion using a standard research scale and their concern over environmental conservation. For instance, participants were asked whether “[c]aring for nature is very important to [them]” and whether they intended to “look for ways to reuse things” in the future. Their levels of compassion were also measured using a standard psychological scale.

The researchers discovered that participants with higher levels of compassion were more likely to have environmental values. Indeed, “the stronger a participant’s…compassion the higher the chance that they would donate to one or more nature or environmental organizations.”

The second study took this idea further, examining whether you could increase people’s pro-environmental attitudes by increasing their compassion. In this study, 94 German university students were asked to look at either a photo of a homeless person or a photo of a sick child for ten seconds before reporting their environmental attitudes. To increase their feelings of compassion, some of the participants were asked to consider their emotions and “imagine how the pictured persons feel.” Others were asked to look at the pictures while “stay[ing] objective…neutral and detached.”

The researchers found that the participants who were asked to empathize with the people in the photos – participants whose compassion levels had been raised – were more likely to hold pro-environmental attitudes than the people who were told to stay detached.

This has big implications for communicators working on environmental issues. “[S]peakers…or climate change campaigns…that aim to mobilize people to protect nature may also include suffering humans in their demonstrations to elicit compassion, which, in turn, may mobilize people to protect nature,” the researchers note.

“We suggest that individuals’ pro-environmental motivation to protect nature can be increased by inducing the emotion of compassion,” the researchers explain.

Environment and Behavior

Stefan Pfattheicher, Ulm University
Claudia Sassenrath, Ulm University and the Knowledge Media Research Center
Simon Schindler, Kassel University

Posted: June 8, 2015
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