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Can guilt about climate warming drive people to do something about it?

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009


That’s the question asked by Mark Ferguson and Nyla Branscombe in a forthcoming article1 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

They begin by exploring the conditions in which climate warming might make people feel guilty:

First, people must believe that their group is responsible for the harm done… This suggests that collective guilt is more likely to be experienced when people believe that global warming is caused by humans than when caused by nature.

Second, people must believe that it is possible to repair the harm done. This suggests that collective guilt is more likely to be experienced when people believe that global warming will have minor effects than when it will have major effects. When people believe that the harm produced by global warming will be catastrophic, then there is less sense that repair is possible, reducing the potential for collective guilt.

Since collective guilt motivates behavior to repair wrongdoing, it follows that collective guilt should increase mitigation behavior.

Next, they interviewed 79 people, using a survey to determine understanding of climate warming, human roles, and any associated guilt.

What did they find?

  • People who believed warming is caused by humans were more likely to believe significant harm would befall future generations and were more likely to feel collective guilt about warming compared to people who believed that climate warming was a natural phenomenon.
  • As suspected, people who felt that warming impacts were minor and fixable felt more guilt than people who believed that warming impacts would be severe.  They were also more willing to do something about it.

There are several implications of this study:

  • Identity matters in the formation of guilt that’s collective.  That is, when people feel like they are part of the group (e.g., Americans) causing environmental change, they are more likely to express this kind of collective guilt.
  • There’s also an important lesson about messaging.  When people hear doomsday scenarios, like the end of civilization is near, they will feel like there is less they can do about climate warming.  And they will feel less guilt and less motivation to do anything about it.  This is similar to a point we discussed earlier—people are often not motivated by complexity or fear.  Pitch climate change as a human-caused problem that is real but not yet severe.  We have the tools to keep its impacts minimal if we work soon to deploy them.
  • You might be asking, “Aren’t people already doing this?” Yes, which means that guilt, while useful, is not a silver bullet.  As Amanda Little would say, there are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot.  Perhaps guilt is one of those buckshot.

Related posts:

1 Ferguson, M.A., Branscombe, N.R. Collective guilt mediates the effect of beliefs about global warming on willingness to engage in mitigation behavior, Journal of Environmental Psychology (2009), doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.11.010


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