Utopia or Apocalypse: Which Visions of the Future Motivate Action?
James Cato, Graduate, Oberlin College
Apocalypse fantasies are ubiquitous in popular entertainment, from zombie TV shows like The Walking Dead to dusty landscapes in films like Mad Max. Best-selling novels like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Stephen King’s The Stand imagine climate-impacted American futures and trace the path that brought them to pass. With climate change playing an increasingly serious role in our daily lives, we wondered how imagining negative, apocalyptic scenarios -- as opposed to positive, utopian futures -- affects our likelihood to undertake real action to prevent climate change’s worst impacts.
Our study sought to quantify which kind of future thinking, or prospection, is the most motivating for changing our behaviors to mitigate climate change. Imagining the future is necessary for grasping the seriousness of the climate crisis. It is also important for envisioning potential solutions. We hypothesized that imagining a negative future by itself would be demotivating, while imagining a positive future would promote mitigating behavior.
To get at this question, we conducted two online surveys. Within each survey, we had two “prospection” conditions, wherein we asked participants to either, 1) Please visualize your neighborhood 30 years in the future. The prominent issues of our time have been fixed, or 2) The prominent issues of our time have continued and worsened. Then, we asked both groups to write four to six sentences about their scenarios, including their senses: what they saw, heard, smelled. We also included two control conditions as baselines (writing about the present, no writing) and found no significant differences between them, thus we combined them.
After their assigned manipulation, all participants answered a series of questions about their mood and their intention to perform 6 climate-mitigating behaviors in the next six months. They then completed a task that measures real pro-environmental behavior with real trade-offs. In one study participants could choose to donate part or all of a surprise bonus to a carbon offset fund. In the other, participants clicked through a series of trials that allowed them to choose between completing the survey faster (but it subtracted money from a carbon offset fund), or taking more time on the survey but preserving a donation to a carbon offset fund.
Some results will not surprise you. For one, imagining a negative future seriously bummed people out while, similarly, imagining a climate utopia increased positive affect (though not as much). However, most interestingly, for those skeptical of climate change, imagining a positive future led to both increased pro-environmental behaviors and pro-environmental behavioral intentions. Yes, you read that right: climate change deniers donated to a carbon offset fund! A negative future led to only increased intentions. We also found that both prospection tasks actually led to a decrease in pro-environmental behaviors among climate change acknowledgers. A blip? Regression to the mean? We’re not sure.
While we saw some benefits of the apocalypse story, we conclude that imagining a positive future, particularly among climate change deniers, is most useful. Future research will examine whether having hope for the future is necessary for managing defensive cognitions about the enormous threat of climate change.