Reflecting on past generations’ sacrifices doesn’t appear to make people more willing to sacrifice for the environment

New research indicates that people feel a greater obligation towards future generations after reflecting on the sacrifices made by past generations. But it is unclear if this greater sense of obligation translates into actual changes in behavior, particularly when it comes to fighting climate change.

The findings have been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“Like many other people, I am concerned about the climate crisis, so that’s the broader background for this research. But, more concretely, it was inspired by an idea articulated by Bill McKibben in the New Republic (and by others): that the mobilization required to tackle climate change will/should/could be modelled on mobilization for war (WWII specifically),” explained study author Hanne M. Watkins, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts.

“Aside from the concrete, literal, mobilization question, this got us thinking about how reflecting on sacrifices made by past generations (e.g., during war, or the great depression) might inspire people to make sacrifices in their own life (to benefit the environment/future generations).”

“There is an academic literature on ‘intergenerational reciprocity‘ that provides evidence that if a ‘past generation’ did something good for you, you will ‘pay it forward’ by acting in ways that benefit ‘future generations’ (rather than acting selfishly),” Watkins told PsyPost.

“The reason I put ‘generations’ in scare quotes is that those studies were almost always done by having participants in a lab imagine that they were (for example) CEOs of a fishery company, with the ‘past generation’ being the previous CEO/shareholders and the ‘next generation’ being the future CEO/shareholders, and the decision was then about how much to deplete (or not) the fish stock. We wanted to broaden the question a bit, and have people think about actual past generations.”

In five experimental online studies, participants were asked to write reflections either about sacrifices made by past generations or, for the control condition, to write about the fashion choices or musical tastes of past generations. The experiments included more than 1,500 individuals in total.

The researchers found that those asked to reflect on sacrifice tended to report feeling a greater sense of obligation towards future generations compared to those asked to reflect on fashion choices. But they did not find convincing evidence that reflecting on sacrifice made the participants more willing to pay a higher tax to help future generations deal with climate change.

“If you ask someone to reflect on the sacrifices past generations made that benefited them, they will probably feel grateful and inspired. They will probably also say that they now feel a greater obligation to consider future generations when they make decisions. In our studies, these effects were big and robust,” Watkins explained to PsyPost.

“But, we only found a very small and somewhat inconsistent effect on willingness to sacrifice for the environment – that is, people who had reflected on past generations’ sacrifices were only in aggregate a tiny bit more likely to say they would be willing to make sacrifices in their own lives for the sake of the environment (than were people who had just thought about past generations’ music choices.)”

“So, if you want people to actually make sacrifices for the environment of future generations, you probably need to do more than just have them think about and feel grateful for their grandparents fighting a war,” Watkins said.

But as with all research, the new findings come with a few caveats.

“It might be the case that the intervention (reflecting on sacrifices made by past generations) is more effective for some people than others. We recruited U.S. participants online using Amazon Mechanical Turk, so we had a mix of men and women, of a range of ages, but it’s not a representative sample,” Watkins explained.

“We haven’t investigated whether (for example) men and women are affected differently by the intervention (women are generally more concerned about the environment than are men, but men are more likely to fight in wars), or whether someone who is already committed to environmental causes would in fact be more willing to sacrifice in their own life when faced with this manipulation.”

“If you want action on climate change, contact your political representatives, donate to reputable environmental organizations, fly less, eat less beef, and talk to your family and friends about your worries and about how awesome a decarbonized future would be! And if thinking about WWII inspires you, go for it,” Watkins added.

The study, “Reflecting on Sacrifices Made by Past Generations Increases a Sense of Obligation Towards Future Generations“, was authored by Hanne M. Watkins and Geoffrey P. Goodwin.