Thinking About Past Generations Could Help Us Tackle Climate Change

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By Emily Reynolds

Rhetoric around climate change often calls on us to think of future generations: if we don’t suffer the effects, then our children and our children’s children will. For some, this sense of obligation could be motivating. But for others, the distant time frame may be a barrier to truly grappling with the issue.

Now, a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests one method to get people thinking about their duty to future generations is to think about the past.

In their new paper, Hanne Watkins from the University of Massachusetts and Geoffrey Goodwin from the University of Pennsylvania suggest that reflecting on the actions of previous generations could cause a greater sense of “intergenerational reciprocity”: thinking about past sacrifices, in other words, could make us more likely to make sacrifices ourselves. At the moment, they argue, key decision makers are faced with a dilemma: their own interests conflict with the interests of future generations. Working out how to increase this intergenerational reciprocity, therefore, could be an important way to influence positive policymaking.

To understand the impact our understanding of the past has on our actions in the future, 200 participants were first asked to respond to a writing prompt, which encouraged them to reflect on either the sacrifices made by previous generations (“which sacrifices made by members of past generations are most important in allowing you to enjoy your current way of life?”) or simply on their fashion choices.

Next, participants were asked to rate how grateful they felt towards past generations on a scale of one to seven, as well as rating how obligated they felt towards future generations. Finally, they rated the importance of twelve social and political issues, including environmental pollution, sustainability and global warming.

As expected, gratitude towards past generations was significantly higher in the group asked to reflect on sacrifice. But so too was obligation to future generations, suggesting that reflection on the past really did have an impact on how people thought about what’s required to make change. However, the two groups didn’t show any differences in the perceived importance of environmental issues.

A second study explored these findings further, asking some participants to reflect on the lack of sacrifices made by past generations. There was also an additional measure at the end of the study, with participants asked if they would be willing to give money or pay more tax to help with environmental issues. In this case, again, reflecting on sacrifice increased gratitude, though there was no significant effect on how willing someone was to give up money for the cause.

And in a final study, some participants were asked to reflect on specific sacrifices — those made during World War II — rather than coming up with their own. Again, participants in the sacrifices condition were more likely to feel more gratitude towards past generations and also reported that the current generation was more “unworthy” and had an easier life. But in this case reflection on sacrifice did not increase obligation towards future generations in any significant sense.

So is thinking about the sacrifices of past generations a sufficient strategy when it comes to encouraging pro-environmental behaviour? Frustratingly, it’s rather difficult to say. While the results of the studies were mixed, overall the team found it did have an impact on our sense of duty towards our descendants. But even if this strategy does increase people’s sense of obligation, this alone may not be enough to change behaviour, as results on donating money seem to indicate.

The question of whose behaviour needs to be changed is also important — although making pro-environmental choice on a day-to-day basis may be a positive foundation for an ethical life, it is key policymakers and influential people who really need to be convinced. For these figures, many of whom have vested interests in decidedly non pro-environmental processes and institutions, shifting opinion may be a little harder.

Reflecting on Sacrifices Made by Past Generations Increases a Sense of Obligation Towards Future Generations

Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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