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Wrinkles in Time and Drops in the Bucket: Circumventing Temporal and Social Barriers to Pro-Environmental Behavior:

Wrinkles in Time and Drops in the Bucket: Circumventing Temporal and Social Barriers to... Human engagement in pro-environmental action is necessary for mitigating the effects of climate change. However, psychological barriers, such as feeling that the problem is distant in time and that any personal actions would only be a “drop in the bucket,” reduce people’s motivation to engage in pro-environmental behaviors that are essential for the future of the planet but that incur short-term personal costs. In the present study, we drew on theory and research regarding the subjective experience of temporal distance and the effects of social norms on action. We used an experimental methodology in which we presented scientifically predicted outcomes of climate change expected around the year 2100, then manipulated the degree to which these future consequences felt proximal or distant. We also altered whether people perceived pro- environmental action to be normative in society, reasoning that people would be more motivated to take on a subjectively looming threat if they believed they were part of a collective who were also taking action. Results indicated that after considering far-off, large-scale climate outcomes, neither subjective proximity nor social norms were sufficient in isolation to motivate behavior, but in combination, they effectively increased pro-environmental intentions and behavior. Those who were induced to feel that these objectively distant future outcomes were subjectively imminent, and who were also led to believe that pro-environmental behavior was normative, reported more intentions to engage in environmentally responsible behavior, and actually reported more sustainable behaviors in the weeks following the study. Keywords time, subjective temporal distance, social norms, pro-environmental behavior, climate change Climate change is one of the most serious global problems of human behavior (Gifford, 2008, 2011; Kazdin, 2009; Koger our time, a potential future calamity that warrants (but often & Scott, 2007; Pelletier, Lavergne, & Sharp, 2008; Soliman fails to receive) our immediate attention (Höhne, Eisbrenner, & Wilson, 2017; Swim et al., 2009). In the present study, we Hagemann, & Moltmann, 2009; Swim et al., 2009). Despite focus on two psychological processes that may hinder people an increasing awareness of the need to modify human behav- from environmental engagement. Climate change can be a ior to mitigate environmental problems (Pew Research daunting problem in part because people often perceive it to Center, 2007), there has been little increase in the level of be a temporally distant problem—and we know that people engagement in environmental behaviors (Höhne et al., 2009; tend to underrate the severity of risks that are remote in time, Morales, 2010). Engaging in environmentally sustainable undermining willingness to act (Lorenzoni, Leiserowitz, De behaviors can possibly mitigate climate change effects in the Franca Doria, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2006; Pahl & Bauer, future (Höhne et al., 2009), but there seem to be several psy- 2013). Compounding this problem, because of the magni- chological barriers that hinder people from engaging in these tude of climate change, people tend to perceive that the acts behaviors. Environmental scientists, biologists, and geogra- phers have provided compelling information documenting 1 Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada the deteriorating state of the environment around us, and the Inpression Inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada media provides an outlet to inform the public about the Corresponding Author: necessity of taking action; however, it is the role of social Anne Wilson, Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, 75 and behavioral scientists to provide tools for overcoming any University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5. social and psychological barriers and effecting change in Email: awilson@wlu.ca Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 SAGE Open of any single individual seem too trivial to make a difference: induced to feel subjectively quite imminent or remote (Peetz This “drop in the bucket” perception may discourage people et al., 2009; Pennington & Roese, 2003). Given that individu- from making significant personal changes when they feel als are more influenced by proximal than distal concerns, they can have little true impact on a problem of this scale inducing subjective feelings of proximity can lead to greater (Bonniface & Henley, 2008). As environmental activist motivation to take action. Accordingly, when people are George Marshall (2014) describes it, climate change has the exposed to experimental approaches that lead them to feel perfect storm of features that decrease the likelihood of an more closely connected to a future time point, they show effective human response to threat. Recognizing how these more motivation to make decisions that result in positive two factors can hinder environmental action can also suggest future outcomes even while incurring immediate costs some possible solutions. In the present research, we target (Ersner-Hershfield, Wimmer, & Knutson, 2009; Peetz et al., these two central barriers to action and examine, using an 2009). However, past work on subjective temporal distance experimental methodology, techniques that may help cir- has primarily focused on personal goals and outcomes such as cumvent them. academic performance and financial planning (Ersner- Hershfield et al., 2009; Peetz et al., 2009). Recently, Bashir and colleagues were the first to examine the impact of experi- Temporal Distance mentally manipulating the perceived temporal distance from Time is central to the understanding of environmental future climate change on pro-environmental motivation problems, such as climate change, and to the provision of (Bashir, Wilson, Lockwood, Chasteen, & Alisat, 2014). Using sustainable solutions (Baptista, 2014). One reason for a a simple experimental procedure to temporarily alter subjec- lack of willingness to adopt positive environmental behav- tive temporal distance (adapted from Peetz et al., 2009), they iors is that climate change consequences seem so tempo- found that by inducing subjective proximity to future climate rally distant (Lorenzoni et al., 2006; Spence, Poortinga, & change consequences taking place a decade into the future, Pidgeon, 2012). Behaving in environmentally sustainable they increased participants’ pro-environmental motivation ways involves a willingness to incur short-term costs and and engagement in environmentally responsible actions. inconveniences to achieve long-term benefits. Behaviors Bashir et al.’s (2014) experimental procedure was effective in with this temporal asymmetry are often challenging to inducing psychological proximity to consequences of climate people because immediate desires loom large, and distant change that would likely happen within participants’ lifetime outcomes can be difficult to keep in focus (Hall & Fong, (10 years from now). However, there is considerable scien- 2007). These asymmetries occur in many domains where tific evidence regarding consequences of climate change that short-term costs must be incurred to achieve long-term are expected to happen over an even longer time frame (i.e., benefits such as health behaviors (healthful eating, exer- likely to be outside the life span of current adults). Events that cise, avoiding smoking, and drug abuse, etc.), financial are only expected to occur to future generations may be even planning, and environmentally sustainable actions. more intensely vulnerable to the demotivating effects of dis- Research on temporal discounting suggests that people tance. Would it be possible to induce subjective proximity regularly undervalue the importance of long-term conse- toward events that are expected to happen that far into the quences while being more heavily swayed by their proxi- future, using a similar psychological manipulation? It is pos- mal concerns (Frederick, Loewenstein, & O’Donoghue, sible to subjectively alter people’s subjective distance to his- 2002). torical events that occurred to past generations (Peetz, Gunn, Although there are clear psychological barriers that dis- & Wilson, 2010), but we are unaware of any attempts to alter courage concern over distant, long-term consequences, recent subjective distance to catastrophes expected to occur to future research suggests that perceptions of temporal distance are generations. The present study extends past research by test- quite malleable. Social psychological research demonstrates ing whether even very distant future events—those that are that even using subtle experimental manipulations such as expected to happen outside of one’s own lifetime—may be altered verbal descriptions or spatial representations along a induced to feel close enough to influence pro-environmental timeline (Peetz, Wilson, & Strahan, 2009; Pennington & intentions and actual engagement in environmentally respon- Roese, 2003; Ross & Wilson, 2002; Wilson & Ross, 2001, sible actions. If subjective proximity to future generations can 2003) can temporarily alter people’s perceptions of temporal be altered, this represents an important potential solution to a distance, making certain events feel close in time—or still significant psychological barrier to climate action (Gifford, very remote—regardless of how far they actually are in terms 2011). of chronological or calendar time. Similarly, although we cannot change the objective time scale of certain climate A Drop in the Bucket? change consequences, we may be able to change the subjec- tive proximity and felt connection to these outcomes using Even if people can be led to feel that a future climate crisis is well-established experimental research techniques. Indeed, subjectively imminent and urgent, this might be insufficient holding calendar time constant, the same point in time can be to motivated action. Indeed, by increasing the problem’s Soliman et al. 3 urgency, people may feel even more acutely that their indi- Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2008). Of course, norms provide vidual actions are simply not sufficient to make a difference. people with complex information, which can motivate behav- Another psychological barrier to engaging in environmen- ior for a variety of reasons. As described in early theorizing tally sustainable behavior may be the perception that any (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955), when people learn that a majority personal behavior cannot have much impact on such a large- of people engage in a particular behavior, they may consider scale, long-term outcome. Because of the scale of the prob- it useful information about an effective and correct way to act lem, it may be difficult for people to feel like any (informational influence), or they may decide to conform to pro-environmental action they engage in would be meaning- the norm to be accepted by others (normative influence). ful and would make a significant difference in isolation from Norms can be descriptive (pertaining to what people do) or other people’s actions. Individuals may feel that their per- injunctive (reflecting what people endorse or disapprove of). sonal actions are just a “drop in the bucket” (Bonniface & Göckeritz et al. (2010) found that people’s conservation Henley, 2008) and that there is no point in making the behavior was predicted by their beliefs about how much other required sacrifices. However, just as people’s perceptions of people in their communities tried to conserve but that this temporal distance can be temporarily altered using experi- relationship was especially strong for those who also held mental procedures, it is also possible to shift people’s feel- injunctive norm beliefs (that others approved of conservation ings that their personal actions are too singular to address efforts). Notably, although the literature recognizes that such a collective problem. Specifically, by using social influ- norms may motivate behavior for varying reasons, little ence techniques that emphasize that others have similar con- research directly examines the possibility that social norms cerns and are currently engaging in similar actions may motivate behavior by instilling the belief that their efforts (Abrahamse & Steg, 2013), the demotivating effects of this will be part of a collective. Given that people may feel demo- psychological barrier might be attenuated. tivated by believing that their efforts are just a drop in the Social norms are known to have a powerful effect on indi- bucket toward a problem of such great magnitude (Bonniface vidual’s behavior across a range of domains (Cialdini, & Henley, 2008), and since feelings of collective efficacy Kallgren, & Reno, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Kinzig have been shown to be important to motivating environmen- et al., 2013); environmental behavior is just one of many tal action (Jugert et al., 2016), we speculated that believing domains affected by people’s perceptions of what others that others are also engaging in social action may be impor- around them are doing. Indeed, in an evaluation of a wide- tant for increasing people’s beliefs that their efforts could spread public information campaign about global warming, matter. This should be especially important when the threat is Staats, Wit, and Minden (1996) found that knowledge and felt most urgently. problem awareness were not sufficient to encourage individ- The present study uses an experimental procedure that ual engagement in activities to mitigate the effects of climate alters perceptions of social norms to lead people to believe change; rather, personal behaviors were strongly correlated that a majority of Canadians engage in pro-environmental with normative beliefs about what other people were doing. action. We expected that a belief that many people were This is consistent with research that has examined the causal working toward a common goal might help individuals over- impact of social influence on behavior. A number of studies come the feeling that their personal pro-environmental have examined the role of social norms in influencing envi- actions are just a “drop in the bucket” and insufficient to ronmental behaviors. After receiving messages that positive make a difference. By experimentally increasing the percep- environmental behaviors were prevalent among others, peo- tion that environmental behavior is common, in combination ple showed positive changes in behaviors such as sustainable with our manipulation inducing people to see the future transportation (Kormos, Gifford, & Brown, 2015), curbside threat as subjectively near, we are able to examine the causal recycling (Schultz, 1998), resource conservation (See effects of combining these two psychological strategies Abrahamse & Steg, 2013 for a review; Göckeritz et al., 2010; aimed to target barriers to climate action. Lapinski, Rimal, DeVries, & Lee, 2007), littering (Kallgren, Reno, & Cialdini, 2000), and hotel towel reuse (Goldstein, The Current Research Griskevicius, & Cialdini, 2007). Although many of these studies focus on very specific single behaviors (e.g., litter- In the present study, we used well-established experimental ing), other research has demonstrated that social norms can techniques that can effectively alter both feelings of temporal have a broader influence on a suite of pro-environmental distance from a future environmental crisis (in Canada) and actions (Fritsche, Jonas, Kayser, & Koranyi, 2010; Reno, perceptions of whether environmental behaviors are cur- Cialdini, & Kallgren, 1993), which is important for fostering rently normative in Canadian society. We evaluated the long-term impact (Lucas, Brooks, Darnton, & Jones, 2008). effects of these two techniques on intentions to behave in an In much of this research, the effect of norms is described as a environmentally responsible way and on reported behaviors. relatively straightforward, automatic social influence process. Using an experimental research method, which involved ran- People go along with what others are doing, often without domly assigning participants to different messages and pro- much conscious consideration (Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, cedures, enabled us to isolate the causal role of each of these 4 SAGE Open variables, and to examine their combined effect in a 2 (dis- Hypothesis 1: Subjective temporal proximity to (vs. dis- tance) × 2 (norms) between-participants design (Aronson, tance from) very distant future events will increase pro- Ellsworth, Carlsmith, & Gonzalez, 1990). environmental intentions and behavior. To ensure that all participants began with identical infor- Hypothesis 2: Pro-environmental social norms (vs. no mation about the potential for catastrophic outcomes due to norms) will increase pro-environmental intentions and climate change, we first presented participants in all condi- behavior. tions with a message about predicted climate change out- Hypothesis 3: Participants who are induced to view comes that are expected to take place by the end of the future climate consequences as proximal (vs. distant) will century (i.e., the year 2100; outside their own life time). show the highest pro-environmental intentions and behav- This message was designed to be threatening, geographi- ior when they also believe action is socially normative cally relevant (it focused on outcomes in their region), and (vs. no norms). as accurate as possible (i.e., based on scientifically sup- ported predictions). Participants were then exposed to a Method subjective temporal distance induction, which has been shown to shift people’s perceptions of the imminence of a Participants future outcome (for instance, making a year or a decade Session 1 participants were 155 undergraduate university seem close or far). This technique was adapted from past students who were recruited through the undergraduate research (Bashir et al., 2014; Peetz et al., 2009), but as research participant pool at a Canadian university and com- noted previously, we targeted a much longer time scale than pensated by course credit. A computer glitch affected the past work has investigated, attempting to make the year results of eight participants, such that it was not possible to 2100 seem close or far away. We tested whether those who determine which experimental condition they had received, were induced to feel closer to this very distant environmen- so they were excluded from all analyses. Of the remaining tal future would report more environmental intentions and sample (N = 147), 117 were female and 30 were male. The behaviors than those who were induced to feel distant from mean age of participants was 18.8 years (range = 17-25 this future outcome. years). Of this sample, 102 participants (69% of Session 1 Next, perceived social norms were manipulated by simply participants) completed the follow-up portion of the study informing half the participants that the majority of Canadians (86 female, 16 male). Proportionally more female than male were engaging in environmental behaviors (and providing no participants completed the follow-up session, χ (1, N = 147) prevalence information in the control condition). We tested = 4.57, p = .03. Participants who completed the follow-up whether participants would report more pro-environmental did not differ significantly from those who did not complete intentions and behaviors when they believed that they were it on any other variables of interest (ts < 1.59, ps > .11). not a “drop in the bucket” but rather that environmental Completion of Session 2 was not affected by the experimen- engagement was the norm. tal condition that participants were randomly assigned to in Most importantly, the present study design allowed us Session 1 (ps > .34). to test whether combining the two strategies (inducing temporal proximity and presenting environmental behav- ior as normative) would be even more effective than using Procedure either of them alone. Some past research has demonstrated that social norms are sometimes only effective when com- Session 1. Participants were told that the purpose of the study bined with other psychological mechanisms motivating was to examine people’s attitudes, behaviors, and thoughts pro-environmental focus (Fritsche et al., 2010). Temporal about social issues including the environment. Session 1 was distance manipulations have never been examined for a an online research session. In the beginning of that session, future outcome outside participants’ lifetimes, but we participants provided demographics (gender, age) and com- speculated that although heightened perceived imminence pleted a premeasure of engagement in environmental behav- of the problem might increase motivation, it could also iors. The environmental behavior inventory was administered make individual action feel insufficient due to the urgency to provide a baseline measure of pro-environmental engage- of the problem of such magnitude. Accordingly, although ment over the past year. On a 5-point scale, from 0 (never) to we thought that each manipulation could have some effect 4 (a lot), participants indicated how often in the past year on their own, given that we are examining such a large- they have engaged in each of 13 “green” behaviors, such as scale, long-term outcome, it seems plausible that the effec- “eat food which is organic, locally grown or in season,” and tiveness of the manipulations would be enhanced when “turn off lights when not in use” (Cronbach’s α = .85 for the they are combined: People would be most motivated to act baseline administration of this scale). when the future threat seemed proximal, and they felt that After the completion of these background measures, par- they were part of a collective effort to mitigate the threat. ticipants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions These hypotheses are stated formally below: in a 2 (distance: close vs. distant) × 2 (social norms: norms Soliman et al. 5 Please complete the timeline by placing a mark on the scale to indicate the point in time that the food shortages that you have just read about will occur and label it “food crisis in 2100”. Close condition: Food crisis in 2100 TODAY 1000 years from now Distantcondition: Food crisis in 2100 TODAY 100 years from now Figure 1. Subjective temporal proximity manipulation. vs. no norms) between-participants experimental design. To assess this, participants completed two manipulation All participants were told that the researchers would like to check items assessing subjective temporal distance to the assess their perception of environmental messages in the predicted environmental crisis. Specifically, we introduced media. Participants read a pro-environmental message participants to the concept of subjective temporal distance by about the consequences of climate change that could occur telling them that people experience time in different ways; by 2100, and the resulting impact on food shortages (e.g., the same point in time might seem quite close to one per- “Scientists agree that if our current behavior does not son but far to another. Then, they were asked to think of the change immediately, Canada will be experiencing severe predicted climate change outcomes that they read about and food shortages by the end of the century”). The message to indicate how far away the year 2100 felt to them. On the ended with the statement that all Canadians need to con- first 11-point scale, participants indicated their rating from serve their natural resources to reduce the risk of these dire 0 (“almost like tomorrow”) to 10 (“very distant future”), outcomes. and on the second, they indicated their rating from 0 (“feels extremely close”) to 10 (“feels extremely far away”). Subjective temporal distance. After reading this passage, participants were invited to complete a timeline task, and Social norms. Next, participants received the social were told that the purpose of this task was to help them men- norms manipulation. Participants in the norms condition tally visualize the time of the impending crisis. The timeline read a statement indicating that the majority of the popula- task was used to introduce the manipulation of perceived tion was motivated to live more sustainably (e.g., “Cana- temporal distance. Participants placed a mark on a timeline dians are quite concerned about this type of environmental that extended from TODAY to either “100 years from now” devastation. In a recent survey, the results suggested that or “1,000 years from now.” The timeline with the 100-year 85% of people living in Canada have already begun to take span induces participants to place the 2100 crisis relatively actions to conserve our natural resources and live in a more further away from TODAY, compared with the timeline with environmentally sustainable way”). Participants in the no the 1,000-year span. Thus, the timeline with the 100-year norms control condition did not read any passage indicat- span was designed to make the year 2100 feel subjectively ing the prevalence of sustainable behavior. To assess the further in time, compared with the timeline with the 1,000- effectiveness of the social norms manipulation, participants year span (see Figure 1). This experimental method of tem- were asked to estimate the percentage of Canadians they porarily altering subjective temporal distance by inducing thought were making significant efforts to act in environ- people to visualize a future time as spatially proximal or dis- mentally sustainable ways by providing a percentage esti- tant from today has been successfully used in other research, mate. Note that we asked participants for their opinions people tend to mark the future spatially either closer or fur- about social prevalence, not for them to report precisely ther away from “TODAY” on the timeline, and subsequently what was reported in the article. We expected that the arti- judge subjective time differently (e.g., Peetz et al., 2009). cle’s report that sustainable behavior was a concern to most Following this task, we assessed whether the manipula- Canadians and highly prevalent would increase people’s tion was successful at temporarily shifting people’s percep- beliefs in action prevalence over what they would typically tions of how subjectively near or distant the year 2100 felt. believe in the absence of such normative information. 6 SAGE Open Table 1. Environmental Intentions and Self-Reported Behaviors feelings of subjective distance from the future 2100 envi- at Follow-Up by Condition. ronmental crisis were highly correlated, r(144) = .88, p < .001, and so they were aggregated. A t-test revealed that Subjective distance condition participants in the close condition reported that the future Close Distant point in time (the year 2100) felt significantly closer (M = 5.51, SD = 2.30) than those in the distant condition Behavioral intention (M = 6.41, SD = 2.64), t(145) = −2.21, p =.03. Norm Next, we examined the effectiveness of the norms manip- M 2.31 2.02 a b ulation. The manipulation successfully led participants to SD 0.84 0.75 estimate that a higher percentage of Canadians were engag- No norm ing in environmentally sustainable action in the norms con- M 1.97 2.07 a a dition (M = 44.91%, SD = 23.29) than in the no norms SD 0.75 0.76 condition (M = 36.14%, SD = 18.37), F(1, 134) = 6.18, Follow-up p = .01, η = .04, although participants’ estimates fell short Norm M 2.40 2.10 of the very high majority indicated in the article. Furthermore, a b SD 0.62 0.55 our prediction that social norms would attenuate the feeling No norm that individual actions were only a drop in the bucket was M 2.00 2.23 supported: Participants reported feeling that any action they a a SD 0.76 0.7 took was a “drop in the bucket” to a marginally greater extent in the no norms condition (M = 4.92, SD = 2.80) than in the Note. Means that share the same subscript in each row do not statistically norms condition (M = 4.12, SD = 2.44), F(1, 143) = 3.58, differ from one another, p > .05. p = .06, η = .02. As expected, these items were not influ- enced by the temporal distance manipulation or by the Drop in the bucket? Furthermore, we sought to directly Distance × Norms interaction. assess our contention that emphasizing social prevalence should attenuate people’s feelings that their personal actions are too singular to address collective problems; Environmental Behaviors participants responded to the item, “I feel like any action Intended environmental behaviors. Self-reported environmen- I take to be environmentally responsible is only a “drop in tal behaviors over the past year were measured prior to the the bucket” and won’t make a difference” on a scale rang- manipulations, allowing us to use this baseline as a covariate. ing from 0 = strongly disagree to 10 = strongly agree. We Recall that we expected that both temporal distance and expected that people who were led to believe that sustain- norms manipulations might affect environmental intentions able action was normative among Canadians would feel on their own, but in particular, the greatest effect was more optimistic that their efforts were not just an ineffec- expected when temporal proximity and high prevalence tive drop in the bucket. norms perceptions were combined. A 2 × 2 analysis of cova- riance (ANCOVA) controlling for baseline environmental Environmental intentions. Participants then read the same behaviors revealed that neither main effect was significant, 13 items from the environmental behavior inventory that Fs < 2.40, ps > .12, but, consistent with the key Hypothesis they completed at the beginning of the study, but here they 3, a significant Distance × Norms interaction emerged, F(1, were asked to rate their intentions to engage in these behav- 140) = 4.10, p = .05, η = .03 (see Table 1). This analysis iors in the next 2 weeks using the same scale ranging from 0 included all participants who completed Session 1 regardless (never) to 4 (a lot; Cronbach’s α = .89). of whether they completed Session 2. Simple effects revealed Session 2. Approximately 2 weeks after completing Session 1, that, as predicted, the subjective distance manipulation had participants were invited by e-mail to complete the follow-up the expected effect in the norms condition (people planned online survey. Session 2 was completed between 2 and 5 weeks more green behaviors when the future felt close), F(1, 140) = after Session 1. In Session 2, participants again completed the 4.44, p = .03, but did not affect intended environmental environmental behaviors inventory. This time, it was com- behaviors in the no norms condition, F < 1, p > .40. Simi- pleted with reference to the preceding 2-week time period. larly, the effect of the norms manipulation had the expected Thus, it was used as a measure of self-reported actual behaviors effect when the future felt close, F(1, 140) = 6.56, p =.01, but in the time period since Session 1 (Cronbach’s α = .87). not when the future felt distant, F < 1, p > .70. Reported environmental behaviors at follow-up. Next, we exam- Results ined whether the effects of these two relatively subtle manip- Manipulation Checks ulations (how people perceive the temporal proximity of As a first step, the effectiveness of the manipulations was future climate crisis, and the prevalence of other Canadians examined. The two manipulation check items assessing working toward mitigation) might have an effect beyond the Soliman et al. 7 these two relatively subtle psychological manipulations could be effective in addressing a collective large-scale prob- lem with outcomes that go beyond participants’ lifetime. Although previous research has suggested that both subjec- tive proximity and social norms could independently have some impact on behavior, neither manipulation alone was sufficient to influence behavioral intentions or outcomes in the present study. Using an experimental research approach enabled us to isolate the causal effects of each manipulation and their impact in combination, while holding other aspects of the communication (e.g., the nature of the climate threat and the year 2100) constant. The present study contributes to research examining tem- Figure 2. Joint effects of social norms and temporal proximity poral factors influencing sustainable behavior. Past research on pro-environmental intentions and behavior. (Bashir et al., 2014) on the power of subjective time is lim- Note. The rating scale for environmental behavior ranged between 0 ited and has focused solely on outcomes that were relatively (never) and 4 (a lot). The scale is only partially displayed in this figure. closer in time (e.g., 10 years), whereas the present study tar- geted outcomes that were considerably more remote (outside momentary increase in environmental intentions. Could participants’ own lifetimes). Because many of the outcomes these techniques to combat the psychological barriers to cli- of climate change are expected to happen in the very distant mate change action have an effect on action over time? A 2 × future, more research is needed to understand the psycho- 2 ANCOVA controlling for baseline environmental behav- logical processes underlying people’s reactions to events that iors revealed a significant Distance × Norms interaction, are expected to occur outside their lifetimes. Our findings F(1, 97) = 9.05, p < .01, η = .09 (once again neither main contribute to the literature by demonstrating that normative effect was significant, Fs < 1.80, ps > .13; see Figure 2). messages can even be effective in inducing change to address Simple effects revealed that the subjective distance manipu- problematic outcomes that are expected to happen in the very lation had the expected effect in the norms condition (people distant future, so long as the problem feels subjectively reported engaging in more green behaviors over the past 2 imminent. However, feeling close to a future climate catas- weeks when the future felt close), F(1, 97) = 4.09, p = .04. trophe of great scope and magnitude was not enough on its There was a marginal reversal in the no norms condition, own to induce greater action; people also needed to believe F(1, 97) = 2.91, p = .09, suggesting that people actually that their efforts were part of a collective. A subtle shift in engaged in slightly more environmentally sustainable behav- how people see the time of a future event, combined with a iors when the future was depicted as distant rather than close. single message about how sustainable behaviors are norma- Similarly, the effect of the norms manipulation had the tive and prevalent among Canadians, were enough in combi- expected effect when the future felt close, F(1, 97) = 10.54, nation to increase behavioral intentions, and, several weeks p < .002, but not when the future felt distant, F(1, 97) = 1.09, later, actual reports of sustainable behaviors. Our findings p < .29. show that inducing minor changes in perception using subtle psychological manipulations can have an impact on behavior regarding climate change, which is a collective societal prob- Discussion lem with expected long-term outcomes. The present study illuminates one possible approach to align- More broadly, this research contributes to work on cli- ing environmental concerns and behaviors by inducing tem- mate change and psychological distance, which is still at its poral proximity and highlighting pro-environmental social nascent stages (e.g., Bashir et al., 2014; Spence et al., 2012). norms. Despite the fact that the message used in this study Although the present research focused on subjective tempo- described an objective timeframe that was beyond partici- ral distance, there are other types of psychological distance pants’ lifetime, increasing the temporal proximity of the con- including spatial (or geographical) distance and hypothetical sequences described and highlighting social norms about distance (i.e., distance from reality, Trope & Liberman, pro-environmental behavior not only produced an immediate 2010). Despite their differences, varying types of distance boost in participants’ motivation but also increased their can also have parallel effects on people’s perceptions of cli- reported pro-environmental behaviors during the weeks fol- mate change and their willingness to engage in mitigation lowing the study. behaviors. Numerous factors can influence distance percep- The study integrates two separate areas of research in tions relating to climate change, and disentangling these fac- social psychology that previously have not been investigated tors can provide a rich avenue for future research. It is in combination: subjective temporal distance and social possible that regardless of the particular “type” of distance, norms. Importantly, we examined the extent to which each of distance may alienate people from the problem and dampen 8 SAGE Open their motivation to engage in collective action (and vice persuasive communication that might more closely reflect versa). For instance, direct experiences with consequences what people are exposed to in everyday life. However, this such as health and extreme weather events may induce feel- streamlined approach corresponds with other methods used ings of (relative) psychological proximity to climate change, in the literature (e.g., Göckeritz et al., 2010; Goldstein et al., as they bring climate change closer to people’s immediate 2007), allowing researchers to clearly communicate a spe- experienced reality and make it seem less like a distant hypo- cific, precise norm to test its causal effect without forcing thetical scenario (e.g., Spence, Poortinga, Butler, & Pidgeon, people to estimate its magnitude and independent of any 2011). In the present study, we altered only one type of dis- other features of a persuasive message. Importantly, this tance (subjective temporal distance) while holding constant approach has also been used as an intervention in field exper- many others (geographical location, calendar time, and the iments and policy settings (e.g., Cialdini, Martin, & hypotheticality of the prediction), allowing us to zero in on Goldstein, 2015; Goldstein et al., 2007), demonstrating the causal effects of a single type; however, we acknowledge that—despite its simplicity—this technique can be used that each of these types of distance is likely to play a role in effectively to influence people’s behavior outside the lab. Of real-world scenarios. course, people’s real-world perceptions of social norms are In the present research, climate change effects were likely to also come from multiple information sources and described quite broadly, and environmental behaviors observations of others’ behaviors and attitudes in their social included activities as diverse as choosing sustainable trans- environment. Nonetheless, we contend that regardless of portation, using scrap paper, and composting kitchen waste. how normative beliefs are developed, they are likely to pro- These kinds of global changes (and many others) are neces- duce important effects on behavior. The present research sary to begin to address the looming environmental devasta- focused on one form of social influence, which is the presen- tion—but we recognize that individual action is not sufficient tation of descriptive social norms, in combination with the to address climate issues that are global, politically charged, subjective temporal proximity induction. However, this and tied to many economic factors. Although promoting research goes beyond past work or informational and norma- individual sustainable action cannot be construed as a com- tive influence by investigating an additional reason that plete solution to the problem, we contend that the more norms might increase environmental action. Specifically, people identify with sustainable lifestyles and entertain the believing there is a social norm may be a powerful motivator possibility of behavior change, the more they may also push in the face of overwhelming odds because it induces a feel- for larger scale action through collective action, political ing that one’s efforts are part of a more prevalent set of col- engagement, and the like. Individuals who feel that they are lective actions that are needed to effectively make change. simply drops in the bucket who cannot effect change are Future research can also examine whether other social influ- likely to accept the political, industrial, and societal status ence technique—such as communicating the message quo to continue. The study targeted two psychological barri- through block leaders, modeling, or getting people to make ers to environmental action and successfully increased peo- public commitments—can also reduce the feeling that one’s ple’s intentions to behave pro-environmentally. Oftentimes, actions are “just a drop in the bucket” and contribute, along people report having the best of intentions, but these do not with temporal proximity induction, to greater willingness to always translate into subsequent behaviors (Webb & participate in sustainable actions. Indeed, a review and meta- Sheeran, 2006). However, the findings of the present study analysis of social influence approaches (Abrahamse & Steg, suggest that the experimental manipulations continued to 2013) indicated that social influence techniques that are influence behavior, even when they were not immediately more resource-intensive and involve face-to-face interac- salient, in the 2 to 5 weeks following the first session. Of tions (e.g., interactions with block leaders) may even be course, these behavior effects were based on self-report more effective than social norms, at least in the domain of measures: Future research should replicate these findings resource conservation. using objective behavioral measures of environmental Another factor to consider in future research is the degree engagement. We also acknowledge that although we to which the information that participants read about was included a range of pro-environmental behaviors in our threatening. Although we did not measure how negatively measure, this is just a subset of behaviors that people can the information was perceived in this study, we did select engage in to help address environmental problems. Future severe, but scientifically supported, expected future conse- research can examine a broader range of pro-environmental quences of climate change. However, it is quite plausible that behaviors, such as making long-term purchase decisions, the same negative information in the description would seem engaging in activism, or making voting decisions with pro- more negative when the time period seemed close rather than environmental concerns in mind. far (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010); this may One limitation of the current design is that social norms have played a role in why subjective proximity increased were established briefly using a single piece of numeric evi- action (in combination with social norms). Future research dence (85% of Canadians beginning to take action), as can utilize different manipulations and directly measure the opposed to providing more complex social information or role of perceived valence and severity of the threat. Finally, Soliman et al. 9 it would be useful to conduct future research including par- Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and ticipants from different age groups and with more variable reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances sociodemographic characteristics to examine the generaliz- in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201-234. ability of the findings. Cialdini, R. B., Martin, S. J., & Goldstein, N. J. (2015). Small As environmental scientists are reaching a consensus behavioral science–informed changes can produce large pol- about the seriousness and severity of climate change and icy-relevant effects. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1(1), 21-27. about human behavior contributing to the problem, social Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and scientists need to take their role by studying the factors that informational social influences upon individual judgment. can lead to greater pro-environmental engagement (Swim Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636. et al., 2009). The present study provides useful insights to Ersner-Hershfield, H., Wimmer, G. E., & Knutson, B. (2009). encourage greater environmental engagement. The insights Saving for the future self: Neural measures of future self- gained from this study can be used to develop and evaluate continuity predict temporal discounting. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4, 85-92. interventions to change environmental behaviors (Steg & Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention and Vlek, 2009). They also highlight the need for research that behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, examines joint effects produced by combining different MA: Addison-Wesley. messaging techniques or psychological interventions. With Frederick, S., Loewenstein, G., & O’Donoghue, T. (2002). Time problems of the magnitude of climate change, it is likely discounting and time preference: A critical review. Journal of that a combination of interventions may prove more effec- Economic Literature, 40, 351-401. tive in changing people’s behavior. Future research can Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Kayser, D. N., & Koranyi, N. (2010). examine how to translate these insights into public commu- Existential threat and compliance with pro-environmental nications that are designed to influence human behaviors in norms. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 67-79. a way that may contribute to the sustainability of our earth Gifford, R. (2008). Psychology’s essential role in alleviating the in the long run. impacts of climate change. Canadian Psychology, 49, 273-280. Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Author’s Note Psychologist, 66, 290-302. All authors contributed equally to this research. Any views expressed Göckeritz, S., Schultz, W., Rendón, T., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, in this paper are those of the authors. They should not be interpreted N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2010). Descriptive normative beliefs as reflecting the views of their respective organizations. and conservation behavior: The moderating roles of personal involvement and injunctive normative beliefs. European Declaration of Conflicting Interests Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 514-523. Goldstein, N. J., Griskevicius, V., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect Invoking social norms: A social psychology perspective on to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. improving hotels’ linen-reuse programs. Hotel Management, 48, 145-150. Funding Hall, P. A., & Fong, G. T. (2007). Temporal self-regulation theory: The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support A model for individual health behavior. 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Wilson is a professor of Social Psychology at Wilfrid of subjective distance. Journal of Personality and Social Laurier University, and fellow of the Canadian Institute for Psychology, 82, 792-803. Advanced Research, Successful Societies Program. She studies Schultz, P. W. (1998). Changing behavior with normative feedback identity, temporal cognition, and motivation; and is funded by the interventions: A field experiment on curbside recycling. Basic Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 25-36. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png SAGE Open SAGE

Wrinkles in Time and Drops in the Bucket: Circumventing Temporal and Social Barriers to Pro-Environmental Behavior:

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Abstract

Human engagement in pro-environmental action is necessary for mitigating the effects of climate change. However, psychological barriers, such as feeling that the problem is distant in time and that any personal actions would only be a “drop in the bucket,” reduce people’s motivation to engage in pro-environmental behaviors that are essential for the future of the planet but that incur short-term personal costs. In the present study, we drew on theory and research regarding the subjective experience of temporal distance and the effects of social norms on action. We used an experimental methodology in which we presented scientifically predicted outcomes of climate change expected around the year 2100, then manipulated the degree to which these future consequences felt proximal or distant. We also altered whether people perceived pro- environmental action to be normative in society, reasoning that people would be more motivated to take on a subjectively looming threat if they believed they were part of a collective who were also taking action. Results indicated that after considering far-off, large-scale climate outcomes, neither subjective proximity nor social norms were sufficient in isolation to motivate behavior, but in combination, they effectively increased pro-environmental intentions and behavior. Those who were induced to feel that these objectively distant future outcomes were subjectively imminent, and who were also led to believe that pro-environmental behavior was normative, reported more intentions to engage in environmentally responsible behavior, and actually reported more sustainable behaviors in the weeks following the study. Keywords time, subjective temporal distance, social norms, pro-environmental behavior, climate change Climate change is one of the most serious global problems of human behavior (Gifford, 2008, 2011; Kazdin, 2009; Koger our time, a potential future calamity that warrants (but often & Scott, 2007; Pelletier, Lavergne, & Sharp, 2008; Soliman fails to receive) our immediate attention (Höhne, Eisbrenner, & Wilson, 2017; Swim et al., 2009). In the present study, we Hagemann, & Moltmann, 2009; Swim et al., 2009). Despite focus on two psychological processes that may hinder people an increasing awareness of the need to modify human behav- from environmental engagement. Climate change can be a ior to mitigate environmental problems (Pew Research daunting problem in part because people often perceive it to Center, 2007), there has been little increase in the level of be a temporally distant problem—and we know that people engagement in environmental behaviors (Höhne et al., 2009; tend to underrate the severity of risks that are remote in time, Morales, 2010). Engaging in environmentally sustainable undermining willingness to act (Lorenzoni, Leiserowitz, De behaviors can possibly mitigate climate change effects in the Franca Doria, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2006; Pahl & Bauer, future (Höhne et al., 2009), but there seem to be several psy- 2013). Compounding this problem, because of the magni- chological barriers that hinder people from engaging in these tude of climate change, people tend to perceive that the acts behaviors. Environmental scientists, biologists, and geogra- phers have provided compelling information documenting 1 Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada the deteriorating state of the environment around us, and the Inpression Inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada media provides an outlet to inform the public about the Corresponding Author: necessity of taking action; however, it is the role of social Anne Wilson, Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, 75 and behavioral scientists to provide tools for overcoming any University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5. social and psychological barriers and effecting change in Email: awilson@wlu.ca Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 SAGE Open of any single individual seem too trivial to make a difference: induced to feel subjectively quite imminent or remote (Peetz This “drop in the bucket” perception may discourage people et al., 2009; Pennington & Roese, 2003). Given that individu- from making significant personal changes when they feel als are more influenced by proximal than distal concerns, they can have little true impact on a problem of this scale inducing subjective feelings of proximity can lead to greater (Bonniface & Henley, 2008). As environmental activist motivation to take action. Accordingly, when people are George Marshall (2014) describes it, climate change has the exposed to experimental approaches that lead them to feel perfect storm of features that decrease the likelihood of an more closely connected to a future time point, they show effective human response to threat. Recognizing how these more motivation to make decisions that result in positive two factors can hinder environmental action can also suggest future outcomes even while incurring immediate costs some possible solutions. In the present research, we target (Ersner-Hershfield, Wimmer, & Knutson, 2009; Peetz et al., these two central barriers to action and examine, using an 2009). However, past work on subjective temporal distance experimental methodology, techniques that may help cir- has primarily focused on personal goals and outcomes such as cumvent them. academic performance and financial planning (Ersner- Hershfield et al., 2009; Peetz et al., 2009). Recently, Bashir and colleagues were the first to examine the impact of experi- Temporal Distance mentally manipulating the perceived temporal distance from Time is central to the understanding of environmental future climate change on pro-environmental motivation problems, such as climate change, and to the provision of (Bashir, Wilson, Lockwood, Chasteen, & Alisat, 2014). Using sustainable solutions (Baptista, 2014). One reason for a a simple experimental procedure to temporarily alter subjec- lack of willingness to adopt positive environmental behav- tive temporal distance (adapted from Peetz et al., 2009), they iors is that climate change consequences seem so tempo- found that by inducing subjective proximity to future climate rally distant (Lorenzoni et al., 2006; Spence, Poortinga, & change consequences taking place a decade into the future, Pidgeon, 2012). Behaving in environmentally sustainable they increased participants’ pro-environmental motivation ways involves a willingness to incur short-term costs and and engagement in environmentally responsible actions. inconveniences to achieve long-term benefits. Behaviors Bashir et al.’s (2014) experimental procedure was effective in with this temporal asymmetry are often challenging to inducing psychological proximity to consequences of climate people because immediate desires loom large, and distant change that would likely happen within participants’ lifetime outcomes can be difficult to keep in focus (Hall & Fong, (10 years from now). However, there is considerable scien- 2007). These asymmetries occur in many domains where tific evidence regarding consequences of climate change that short-term costs must be incurred to achieve long-term are expected to happen over an even longer time frame (i.e., benefits such as health behaviors (healthful eating, exer- likely to be outside the life span of current adults). Events that cise, avoiding smoking, and drug abuse, etc.), financial are only expected to occur to future generations may be even planning, and environmentally sustainable actions. more intensely vulnerable to the demotivating effects of dis- Research on temporal discounting suggests that people tance. Would it be possible to induce subjective proximity regularly undervalue the importance of long-term conse- toward events that are expected to happen that far into the quences while being more heavily swayed by their proxi- future, using a similar psychological manipulation? It is pos- mal concerns (Frederick, Loewenstein, & O’Donoghue, sible to subjectively alter people’s subjective distance to his- 2002). torical events that occurred to past generations (Peetz, Gunn, Although there are clear psychological barriers that dis- & Wilson, 2010), but we are unaware of any attempts to alter courage concern over distant, long-term consequences, recent subjective distance to catastrophes expected to occur to future research suggests that perceptions of temporal distance are generations. The present study extends past research by test- quite malleable. Social psychological research demonstrates ing whether even very distant future events—those that are that even using subtle experimental manipulations such as expected to happen outside of one’s own lifetime—may be altered verbal descriptions or spatial representations along a induced to feel close enough to influence pro-environmental timeline (Peetz, Wilson, & Strahan, 2009; Pennington & intentions and actual engagement in environmentally respon- Roese, 2003; Ross & Wilson, 2002; Wilson & Ross, 2001, sible actions. If subjective proximity to future generations can 2003) can temporarily alter people’s perceptions of temporal be altered, this represents an important potential solution to a distance, making certain events feel close in time—or still significant psychological barrier to climate action (Gifford, very remote—regardless of how far they actually are in terms 2011). of chronological or calendar time. Similarly, although we cannot change the objective time scale of certain climate A Drop in the Bucket? change consequences, we may be able to change the subjec- tive proximity and felt connection to these outcomes using Even if people can be led to feel that a future climate crisis is well-established experimental research techniques. Indeed, subjectively imminent and urgent, this might be insufficient holding calendar time constant, the same point in time can be to motivated action. Indeed, by increasing the problem’s Soliman et al. 3 urgency, people may feel even more acutely that their indi- Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2008). Of course, norms provide vidual actions are simply not sufficient to make a difference. people with complex information, which can motivate behav- Another psychological barrier to engaging in environmen- ior for a variety of reasons. As described in early theorizing tally sustainable behavior may be the perception that any (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955), when people learn that a majority personal behavior cannot have much impact on such a large- of people engage in a particular behavior, they may consider scale, long-term outcome. Because of the scale of the prob- it useful information about an effective and correct way to act lem, it may be difficult for people to feel like any (informational influence), or they may decide to conform to pro-environmental action they engage in would be meaning- the norm to be accepted by others (normative influence). ful and would make a significant difference in isolation from Norms can be descriptive (pertaining to what people do) or other people’s actions. Individuals may feel that their per- injunctive (reflecting what people endorse or disapprove of). sonal actions are just a “drop in the bucket” (Bonniface & Göckeritz et al. (2010) found that people’s conservation Henley, 2008) and that there is no point in making the behavior was predicted by their beliefs about how much other required sacrifices. However, just as people’s perceptions of people in their communities tried to conserve but that this temporal distance can be temporarily altered using experi- relationship was especially strong for those who also held mental procedures, it is also possible to shift people’s feel- injunctive norm beliefs (that others approved of conservation ings that their personal actions are too singular to address efforts). Notably, although the literature recognizes that such a collective problem. Specifically, by using social influ- norms may motivate behavior for varying reasons, little ence techniques that emphasize that others have similar con- research directly examines the possibility that social norms cerns and are currently engaging in similar actions may motivate behavior by instilling the belief that their efforts (Abrahamse & Steg, 2013), the demotivating effects of this will be part of a collective. Given that people may feel demo- psychological barrier might be attenuated. tivated by believing that their efforts are just a drop in the Social norms are known to have a powerful effect on indi- bucket toward a problem of such great magnitude (Bonniface vidual’s behavior across a range of domains (Cialdini, & Henley, 2008), and since feelings of collective efficacy Kallgren, & Reno, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Kinzig have been shown to be important to motivating environmen- et al., 2013); environmental behavior is just one of many tal action (Jugert et al., 2016), we speculated that believing domains affected by people’s perceptions of what others that others are also engaging in social action may be impor- around them are doing. Indeed, in an evaluation of a wide- tant for increasing people’s beliefs that their efforts could spread public information campaign about global warming, matter. This should be especially important when the threat is Staats, Wit, and Minden (1996) found that knowledge and felt most urgently. problem awareness were not sufficient to encourage individ- The present study uses an experimental procedure that ual engagement in activities to mitigate the effects of climate alters perceptions of social norms to lead people to believe change; rather, personal behaviors were strongly correlated that a majority of Canadians engage in pro-environmental with normative beliefs about what other people were doing. action. We expected that a belief that many people were This is consistent with research that has examined the causal working toward a common goal might help individuals over- impact of social influence on behavior. A number of studies come the feeling that their personal pro-environmental have examined the role of social norms in influencing envi- actions are just a “drop in the bucket” and insufficient to ronmental behaviors. After receiving messages that positive make a difference. By experimentally increasing the percep- environmental behaviors were prevalent among others, peo- tion that environmental behavior is common, in combination ple showed positive changes in behaviors such as sustainable with our manipulation inducing people to see the future transportation (Kormos, Gifford, & Brown, 2015), curbside threat as subjectively near, we are able to examine the causal recycling (Schultz, 1998), resource conservation (See effects of combining these two psychological strategies Abrahamse & Steg, 2013 for a review; Göckeritz et al., 2010; aimed to target barriers to climate action. Lapinski, Rimal, DeVries, & Lee, 2007), littering (Kallgren, Reno, & Cialdini, 2000), and hotel towel reuse (Goldstein, The Current Research Griskevicius, & Cialdini, 2007). Although many of these studies focus on very specific single behaviors (e.g., litter- In the present study, we used well-established experimental ing), other research has demonstrated that social norms can techniques that can effectively alter both feelings of temporal have a broader influence on a suite of pro-environmental distance from a future environmental crisis (in Canada) and actions (Fritsche, Jonas, Kayser, & Koranyi, 2010; Reno, perceptions of whether environmental behaviors are cur- Cialdini, & Kallgren, 1993), which is important for fostering rently normative in Canadian society. We evaluated the long-term impact (Lucas, Brooks, Darnton, & Jones, 2008). effects of these two techniques on intentions to behave in an In much of this research, the effect of norms is described as a environmentally responsible way and on reported behaviors. relatively straightforward, automatic social influence process. Using an experimental research method, which involved ran- People go along with what others are doing, often without domly assigning participants to different messages and pro- much conscious consideration (Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, cedures, enabled us to isolate the causal role of each of these 4 SAGE Open variables, and to examine their combined effect in a 2 (dis- Hypothesis 1: Subjective temporal proximity to (vs. dis- tance) × 2 (norms) between-participants design (Aronson, tance from) very distant future events will increase pro- Ellsworth, Carlsmith, & Gonzalez, 1990). environmental intentions and behavior. To ensure that all participants began with identical infor- Hypothesis 2: Pro-environmental social norms (vs. no mation about the potential for catastrophic outcomes due to norms) will increase pro-environmental intentions and climate change, we first presented participants in all condi- behavior. tions with a message about predicted climate change out- Hypothesis 3: Participants who are induced to view comes that are expected to take place by the end of the future climate consequences as proximal (vs. distant) will century (i.e., the year 2100; outside their own life time). show the highest pro-environmental intentions and behav- This message was designed to be threatening, geographi- ior when they also believe action is socially normative cally relevant (it focused on outcomes in their region), and (vs. no norms). as accurate as possible (i.e., based on scientifically sup- ported predictions). Participants were then exposed to a Method subjective temporal distance induction, which has been shown to shift people’s perceptions of the imminence of a Participants future outcome (for instance, making a year or a decade Session 1 participants were 155 undergraduate university seem close or far). This technique was adapted from past students who were recruited through the undergraduate research (Bashir et al., 2014; Peetz et al., 2009), but as research participant pool at a Canadian university and com- noted previously, we targeted a much longer time scale than pensated by course credit. A computer glitch affected the past work has investigated, attempting to make the year results of eight participants, such that it was not possible to 2100 seem close or far away. We tested whether those who determine which experimental condition they had received, were induced to feel closer to this very distant environmen- so they were excluded from all analyses. Of the remaining tal future would report more environmental intentions and sample (N = 147), 117 were female and 30 were male. The behaviors than those who were induced to feel distant from mean age of participants was 18.8 years (range = 17-25 this future outcome. years). Of this sample, 102 participants (69% of Session 1 Next, perceived social norms were manipulated by simply participants) completed the follow-up portion of the study informing half the participants that the majority of Canadians (86 female, 16 male). Proportionally more female than male were engaging in environmental behaviors (and providing no participants completed the follow-up session, χ (1, N = 147) prevalence information in the control condition). We tested = 4.57, p = .03. Participants who completed the follow-up whether participants would report more pro-environmental did not differ significantly from those who did not complete intentions and behaviors when they believed that they were it on any other variables of interest (ts < 1.59, ps > .11). not a “drop in the bucket” but rather that environmental Completion of Session 2 was not affected by the experimen- engagement was the norm. tal condition that participants were randomly assigned to in Most importantly, the present study design allowed us Session 1 (ps > .34). to test whether combining the two strategies (inducing temporal proximity and presenting environmental behav- ior as normative) would be even more effective than using Procedure either of them alone. Some past research has demonstrated that social norms are sometimes only effective when com- Session 1. Participants were told that the purpose of the study bined with other psychological mechanisms motivating was to examine people’s attitudes, behaviors, and thoughts pro-environmental focus (Fritsche et al., 2010). Temporal about social issues including the environment. Session 1 was distance manipulations have never been examined for a an online research session. In the beginning of that session, future outcome outside participants’ lifetimes, but we participants provided demographics (gender, age) and com- speculated that although heightened perceived imminence pleted a premeasure of engagement in environmental behav- of the problem might increase motivation, it could also iors. The environmental behavior inventory was administered make individual action feel insufficient due to the urgency to provide a baseline measure of pro-environmental engage- of the problem of such magnitude. Accordingly, although ment over the past year. On a 5-point scale, from 0 (never) to we thought that each manipulation could have some effect 4 (a lot), participants indicated how often in the past year on their own, given that we are examining such a large- they have engaged in each of 13 “green” behaviors, such as scale, long-term outcome, it seems plausible that the effec- “eat food which is organic, locally grown or in season,” and tiveness of the manipulations would be enhanced when “turn off lights when not in use” (Cronbach’s α = .85 for the they are combined: People would be most motivated to act baseline administration of this scale). when the future threat seemed proximal, and they felt that After the completion of these background measures, par- they were part of a collective effort to mitigate the threat. ticipants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions These hypotheses are stated formally below: in a 2 (distance: close vs. distant) × 2 (social norms: norms Soliman et al. 5 Please complete the timeline by placing a mark on the scale to indicate the point in time that the food shortages that you have just read about will occur and label it “food crisis in 2100”. Close condition: Food crisis in 2100 TODAY 1000 years from now Distantcondition: Food crisis in 2100 TODAY 100 years from now Figure 1. Subjective temporal proximity manipulation. vs. no norms) between-participants experimental design. To assess this, participants completed two manipulation All participants were told that the researchers would like to check items assessing subjective temporal distance to the assess their perception of environmental messages in the predicted environmental crisis. Specifically, we introduced media. Participants read a pro-environmental message participants to the concept of subjective temporal distance by about the consequences of climate change that could occur telling them that people experience time in different ways; by 2100, and the resulting impact on food shortages (e.g., the same point in time might seem quite close to one per- “Scientists agree that if our current behavior does not son but far to another. Then, they were asked to think of the change immediately, Canada will be experiencing severe predicted climate change outcomes that they read about and food shortages by the end of the century”). The message to indicate how far away the year 2100 felt to them. On the ended with the statement that all Canadians need to con- first 11-point scale, participants indicated their rating from serve their natural resources to reduce the risk of these dire 0 (“almost like tomorrow”) to 10 (“very distant future”), outcomes. and on the second, they indicated their rating from 0 (“feels extremely close”) to 10 (“feels extremely far away”). Subjective temporal distance. After reading this passage, participants were invited to complete a timeline task, and Social norms. Next, participants received the social were told that the purpose of this task was to help them men- norms manipulation. Participants in the norms condition tally visualize the time of the impending crisis. The timeline read a statement indicating that the majority of the popula- task was used to introduce the manipulation of perceived tion was motivated to live more sustainably (e.g., “Cana- temporal distance. Participants placed a mark on a timeline dians are quite concerned about this type of environmental that extended from TODAY to either “100 years from now” devastation. In a recent survey, the results suggested that or “1,000 years from now.” The timeline with the 100-year 85% of people living in Canada have already begun to take span induces participants to place the 2100 crisis relatively actions to conserve our natural resources and live in a more further away from TODAY, compared with the timeline with environmentally sustainable way”). Participants in the no the 1,000-year span. Thus, the timeline with the 100-year norms control condition did not read any passage indicat- span was designed to make the year 2100 feel subjectively ing the prevalence of sustainable behavior. To assess the further in time, compared with the timeline with the 1,000- effectiveness of the social norms manipulation, participants year span (see Figure 1). This experimental method of tem- were asked to estimate the percentage of Canadians they porarily altering subjective temporal distance by inducing thought were making significant efforts to act in environ- people to visualize a future time as spatially proximal or dis- mentally sustainable ways by providing a percentage esti- tant from today has been successfully used in other research, mate. Note that we asked participants for their opinions people tend to mark the future spatially either closer or fur- about social prevalence, not for them to report precisely ther away from “TODAY” on the timeline, and subsequently what was reported in the article. We expected that the arti- judge subjective time differently (e.g., Peetz et al., 2009). cle’s report that sustainable behavior was a concern to most Following this task, we assessed whether the manipula- Canadians and highly prevalent would increase people’s tion was successful at temporarily shifting people’s percep- beliefs in action prevalence over what they would typically tions of how subjectively near or distant the year 2100 felt. believe in the absence of such normative information. 6 SAGE Open Table 1. Environmental Intentions and Self-Reported Behaviors feelings of subjective distance from the future 2100 envi- at Follow-Up by Condition. ronmental crisis were highly correlated, r(144) = .88, p < .001, and so they were aggregated. A t-test revealed that Subjective distance condition participants in the close condition reported that the future Close Distant point in time (the year 2100) felt significantly closer (M = 5.51, SD = 2.30) than those in the distant condition Behavioral intention (M = 6.41, SD = 2.64), t(145) = −2.21, p =.03. Norm Next, we examined the effectiveness of the norms manip- M 2.31 2.02 a b ulation. The manipulation successfully led participants to SD 0.84 0.75 estimate that a higher percentage of Canadians were engag- No norm ing in environmentally sustainable action in the norms con- M 1.97 2.07 a a dition (M = 44.91%, SD = 23.29) than in the no norms SD 0.75 0.76 condition (M = 36.14%, SD = 18.37), F(1, 134) = 6.18, Follow-up p = .01, η = .04, although participants’ estimates fell short Norm M 2.40 2.10 of the very high majority indicated in the article. Furthermore, a b SD 0.62 0.55 our prediction that social norms would attenuate the feeling No norm that individual actions were only a drop in the bucket was M 2.00 2.23 supported: Participants reported feeling that any action they a a SD 0.76 0.7 took was a “drop in the bucket” to a marginally greater extent in the no norms condition (M = 4.92, SD = 2.80) than in the Note. Means that share the same subscript in each row do not statistically norms condition (M = 4.12, SD = 2.44), F(1, 143) = 3.58, differ from one another, p > .05. p = .06, η = .02. As expected, these items were not influ- enced by the temporal distance manipulation or by the Drop in the bucket? Furthermore, we sought to directly Distance × Norms interaction. assess our contention that emphasizing social prevalence should attenuate people’s feelings that their personal actions are too singular to address collective problems; Environmental Behaviors participants responded to the item, “I feel like any action Intended environmental behaviors. Self-reported environmen- I take to be environmentally responsible is only a “drop in tal behaviors over the past year were measured prior to the the bucket” and won’t make a difference” on a scale rang- manipulations, allowing us to use this baseline as a covariate. ing from 0 = strongly disagree to 10 = strongly agree. We Recall that we expected that both temporal distance and expected that people who were led to believe that sustain- norms manipulations might affect environmental intentions able action was normative among Canadians would feel on their own, but in particular, the greatest effect was more optimistic that their efforts were not just an ineffec- expected when temporal proximity and high prevalence tive drop in the bucket. norms perceptions were combined. A 2 × 2 analysis of cova- riance (ANCOVA) controlling for baseline environmental Environmental intentions. Participants then read the same behaviors revealed that neither main effect was significant, 13 items from the environmental behavior inventory that Fs < 2.40, ps > .12, but, consistent with the key Hypothesis they completed at the beginning of the study, but here they 3, a significant Distance × Norms interaction emerged, F(1, were asked to rate their intentions to engage in these behav- 140) = 4.10, p = .05, η = .03 (see Table 1). This analysis iors in the next 2 weeks using the same scale ranging from 0 included all participants who completed Session 1 regardless (never) to 4 (a lot; Cronbach’s α = .89). of whether they completed Session 2. Simple effects revealed Session 2. Approximately 2 weeks after completing Session 1, that, as predicted, the subjective distance manipulation had participants were invited by e-mail to complete the follow-up the expected effect in the norms condition (people planned online survey. Session 2 was completed between 2 and 5 weeks more green behaviors when the future felt close), F(1, 140) = after Session 1. In Session 2, participants again completed the 4.44, p = .03, but did not affect intended environmental environmental behaviors inventory. This time, it was com- behaviors in the no norms condition, F < 1, p > .40. Simi- pleted with reference to the preceding 2-week time period. larly, the effect of the norms manipulation had the expected Thus, it was used as a measure of self-reported actual behaviors effect when the future felt close, F(1, 140) = 6.56, p =.01, but in the time period since Session 1 (Cronbach’s α = .87). not when the future felt distant, F < 1, p > .70. Reported environmental behaviors at follow-up. Next, we exam- Results ined whether the effects of these two relatively subtle manip- Manipulation Checks ulations (how people perceive the temporal proximity of As a first step, the effectiveness of the manipulations was future climate crisis, and the prevalence of other Canadians examined. The two manipulation check items assessing working toward mitigation) might have an effect beyond the Soliman et al. 7 these two relatively subtle psychological manipulations could be effective in addressing a collective large-scale prob- lem with outcomes that go beyond participants’ lifetime. Although previous research has suggested that both subjec- tive proximity and social norms could independently have some impact on behavior, neither manipulation alone was sufficient to influence behavioral intentions or outcomes in the present study. Using an experimental research approach enabled us to isolate the causal effects of each manipulation and their impact in combination, while holding other aspects of the communication (e.g., the nature of the climate threat and the year 2100) constant. The present study contributes to research examining tem- Figure 2. Joint effects of social norms and temporal proximity poral factors influencing sustainable behavior. Past research on pro-environmental intentions and behavior. (Bashir et al., 2014) on the power of subjective time is lim- Note. The rating scale for environmental behavior ranged between 0 ited and has focused solely on outcomes that were relatively (never) and 4 (a lot). The scale is only partially displayed in this figure. closer in time (e.g., 10 years), whereas the present study tar- geted outcomes that were considerably more remote (outside momentary increase in environmental intentions. Could participants’ own lifetimes). Because many of the outcomes these techniques to combat the psychological barriers to cli- of climate change are expected to happen in the very distant mate change action have an effect on action over time? A 2 × future, more research is needed to understand the psycho- 2 ANCOVA controlling for baseline environmental behav- logical processes underlying people’s reactions to events that iors revealed a significant Distance × Norms interaction, are expected to occur outside their lifetimes. Our findings F(1, 97) = 9.05, p < .01, η = .09 (once again neither main contribute to the literature by demonstrating that normative effect was significant, Fs < 1.80, ps > .13; see Figure 2). messages can even be effective in inducing change to address Simple effects revealed that the subjective distance manipu- problematic outcomes that are expected to happen in the very lation had the expected effect in the norms condition (people distant future, so long as the problem feels subjectively reported engaging in more green behaviors over the past 2 imminent. However, feeling close to a future climate catas- weeks when the future felt close), F(1, 97) = 4.09, p = .04. trophe of great scope and magnitude was not enough on its There was a marginal reversal in the no norms condition, own to induce greater action; people also needed to believe F(1, 97) = 2.91, p = .09, suggesting that people actually that their efforts were part of a collective. A subtle shift in engaged in slightly more environmentally sustainable behav- how people see the time of a future event, combined with a iors when the future was depicted as distant rather than close. single message about how sustainable behaviors are norma- Similarly, the effect of the norms manipulation had the tive and prevalent among Canadians, were enough in combi- expected effect when the future felt close, F(1, 97) = 10.54, nation to increase behavioral intentions, and, several weeks p < .002, but not when the future felt distant, F(1, 97) = 1.09, later, actual reports of sustainable behaviors. Our findings p < .29. show that inducing minor changes in perception using subtle psychological manipulations can have an impact on behavior regarding climate change, which is a collective societal prob- Discussion lem with expected long-term outcomes. The present study illuminates one possible approach to align- More broadly, this research contributes to work on cli- ing environmental concerns and behaviors by inducing tem- mate change and psychological distance, which is still at its poral proximity and highlighting pro-environmental social nascent stages (e.g., Bashir et al., 2014; Spence et al., 2012). norms. Despite the fact that the message used in this study Although the present research focused on subjective tempo- described an objective timeframe that was beyond partici- ral distance, there are other types of psychological distance pants’ lifetime, increasing the temporal proximity of the con- including spatial (or geographical) distance and hypothetical sequences described and highlighting social norms about distance (i.e., distance from reality, Trope & Liberman, pro-environmental behavior not only produced an immediate 2010). Despite their differences, varying types of distance boost in participants’ motivation but also increased their can also have parallel effects on people’s perceptions of cli- reported pro-environmental behaviors during the weeks fol- mate change and their willingness to engage in mitigation lowing the study. behaviors. Numerous factors can influence distance percep- The study integrates two separate areas of research in tions relating to climate change, and disentangling these fac- social psychology that previously have not been investigated tors can provide a rich avenue for future research. It is in combination: subjective temporal distance and social possible that regardless of the particular “type” of distance, norms. Importantly, we examined the extent to which each of distance may alienate people from the problem and dampen 8 SAGE Open their motivation to engage in collective action (and vice persuasive communication that might more closely reflect versa). For instance, direct experiences with consequences what people are exposed to in everyday life. However, this such as health and extreme weather events may induce feel- streamlined approach corresponds with other methods used ings of (relative) psychological proximity to climate change, in the literature (e.g., Göckeritz et al., 2010; Goldstein et al., as they bring climate change closer to people’s immediate 2007), allowing researchers to clearly communicate a spe- experienced reality and make it seem less like a distant hypo- cific, precise norm to test its causal effect without forcing thetical scenario (e.g., Spence, Poortinga, Butler, & Pidgeon, people to estimate its magnitude and independent of any 2011). In the present study, we altered only one type of dis- other features of a persuasive message. Importantly, this tance (subjective temporal distance) while holding constant approach has also been used as an intervention in field exper- many others (geographical location, calendar time, and the iments and policy settings (e.g., Cialdini, Martin, & hypotheticality of the prediction), allowing us to zero in on Goldstein, 2015; Goldstein et al., 2007), demonstrating the causal effects of a single type; however, we acknowledge that—despite its simplicity—this technique can be used that each of these types of distance is likely to play a role in effectively to influence people’s behavior outside the lab. Of real-world scenarios. course, people’s real-world perceptions of social norms are In the present research, climate change effects were likely to also come from multiple information sources and described quite broadly, and environmental behaviors observations of others’ behaviors and attitudes in their social included activities as diverse as choosing sustainable trans- environment. Nonetheless, we contend that regardless of portation, using scrap paper, and composting kitchen waste. how normative beliefs are developed, they are likely to pro- These kinds of global changes (and many others) are neces- duce important effects on behavior. The present research sary to begin to address the looming environmental devasta- focused on one form of social influence, which is the presen- tion—but we recognize that individual action is not sufficient tation of descriptive social norms, in combination with the to address climate issues that are global, politically charged, subjective temporal proximity induction. However, this and tied to many economic factors. Although promoting research goes beyond past work or informational and norma- individual sustainable action cannot be construed as a com- tive influence by investigating an additional reason that plete solution to the problem, we contend that the more norms might increase environmental action. Specifically, people identify with sustainable lifestyles and entertain the believing there is a social norm may be a powerful motivator possibility of behavior change, the more they may also push in the face of overwhelming odds because it induces a feel- for larger scale action through collective action, political ing that one’s efforts are part of a more prevalent set of col- engagement, and the like. Individuals who feel that they are lective actions that are needed to effectively make change. simply drops in the bucket who cannot effect change are Future research can also examine whether other social influ- likely to accept the political, industrial, and societal status ence technique—such as communicating the message quo to continue. The study targeted two psychological barri- through block leaders, modeling, or getting people to make ers to environmental action and successfully increased peo- public commitments—can also reduce the feeling that one’s ple’s intentions to behave pro-environmentally. Oftentimes, actions are “just a drop in the bucket” and contribute, along people report having the best of intentions, but these do not with temporal proximity induction, to greater willingness to always translate into subsequent behaviors (Webb & participate in sustainable actions. Indeed, a review and meta- Sheeran, 2006). However, the findings of the present study analysis of social influence approaches (Abrahamse & Steg, suggest that the experimental manipulations continued to 2013) indicated that social influence techniques that are influence behavior, even when they were not immediately more resource-intensive and involve face-to-face interac- salient, in the 2 to 5 weeks following the first session. Of tions (e.g., interactions with block leaders) may even be course, these behavior effects were based on self-report more effective than social norms, at least in the domain of measures: Future research should replicate these findings resource conservation. using objective behavioral measures of environmental Another factor to consider in future research is the degree engagement. We also acknowledge that although we to which the information that participants read about was included a range of pro-environmental behaviors in our threatening. Although we did not measure how negatively measure, this is just a subset of behaviors that people can the information was perceived in this study, we did select engage in to help address environmental problems. Future severe, but scientifically supported, expected future conse- research can examine a broader range of pro-environmental quences of climate change. However, it is quite plausible that behaviors, such as making long-term purchase decisions, the same negative information in the description would seem engaging in activism, or making voting decisions with pro- more negative when the time period seemed close rather than environmental concerns in mind. far (Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010); this may One limitation of the current design is that social norms have played a role in why subjective proximity increased were established briefly using a single piece of numeric evi- action (in combination with social norms). Future research dence (85% of Canadians beginning to take action), as can utilize different manipulations and directly measure the opposed to providing more complex social information or role of perceived valence and severity of the threat. Finally, Soliman et al. 9 it would be useful to conduct future research including par- Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and ticipants from different age groups and with more variable reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances sociodemographic characteristics to examine the generaliz- in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201-234. ability of the findings. Cialdini, R. B., Martin, S. J., & Goldstein, N. J. (2015). Small As environmental scientists are reaching a consensus behavioral science–informed changes can produce large pol- about the seriousness and severity of climate change and icy-relevant effects. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1(1), 21-27. about human behavior contributing to the problem, social Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and scientists need to take their role by studying the factors that informational social influences upon individual judgment. can lead to greater pro-environmental engagement (Swim Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636. et al., 2009). The present study provides useful insights to Ersner-Hershfield, H., Wimmer, G. E., & Knutson, B. (2009). encourage greater environmental engagement. The insights Saving for the future self: Neural measures of future self- gained from this study can be used to develop and evaluate continuity predict temporal discounting. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4, 85-92. interventions to change environmental behaviors (Steg & Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention and Vlek, 2009). They also highlight the need for research that behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, examines joint effects produced by combining different MA: Addison-Wesley. messaging techniques or psychological interventions. With Frederick, S., Loewenstein, G., & O’Donoghue, T. (2002). Time problems of the magnitude of climate change, it is likely discounting and time preference: A critical review. Journal of that a combination of interventions may prove more effec- Economic Literature, 40, 351-401. tive in changing people’s behavior. Future research can Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Kayser, D. N., & Koranyi, N. (2010). examine how to translate these insights into public commu- Existential threat and compliance with pro-environmental nications that are designed to influence human behaviors in norms. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 67-79. a way that may contribute to the sustainability of our earth Gifford, R. (2008). Psychology’s essential role in alleviating the in the long run. impacts of climate change. Canadian Psychology, 49, 273-280. Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Author’s Note Psychologist, 66, 290-302. All authors contributed equally to this research. Any views expressed Göckeritz, S., Schultz, W., Rendón, T., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, in this paper are those of the authors. They should not be interpreted N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2010). Descriptive normative beliefs as reflecting the views of their respective organizations. and conservation behavior: The moderating roles of personal involvement and injunctive normative beliefs. European Declaration of Conflicting Interests Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 514-523. Goldstein, N. J., Griskevicius, V., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect Invoking social norms: A social psychology perspective on to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. improving hotels’ linen-reuse programs. Hotel Management, 48, 145-150. Funding Hall, P. A., & Fong, G. T. (2007). Temporal self-regulation theory: The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support A model for individual health behavior. 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Wilson is a professor of Social Psychology at Wilfrid of subjective distance. Journal of Personality and Social Laurier University, and fellow of the Canadian Institute for Psychology, 82, 792-803. Advanced Research, Successful Societies Program. She studies Schultz, P. W. (1998). Changing behavior with normative feedback identity, temporal cognition, and motivation; and is funded by the interventions: A field experiment on curbside recycling. Basic Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. and Applied Social Psychology, 21, 25-36.

Journal

SAGE OpenSAGE

Published: May 8, 2018

Keywords: time; subjective temporal distance; social norms; pro-environmental behavior; climate change

References