09/03/2013 12:00 pm ET | Updated Nov 03, 2013

To Change Environmental Behavior, Should We Really Tell People the World Is Ending?

This post was co-authored with Elke U. Weber, the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia University's Business School.

This past week, a report leaked from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated with near certainty that the environmental changes from the last several decades have been caused by people. Perhaps not surprisingly, these types of reports have been met with media coverage that ranges from grim to apocalyptic. An earlier report by the IPCC prompted the fear-evoking 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. No less dire warnings about the planet's future abound today. With sea levels potentially rising three feet and average temperatures increasing five degrees by the end of the century, reports noted that cities such as New York and London would be seriously endangered, and mass extinctions could take place. But will ominous scenarios such as these cause people to change their environmentally unfriendly behavior? We think not.

In a paper to be published in Psychological Science, we propose that another way to influence people's behavior towards protecting the environment is to emphasize the long life expectancy of a nation, rather than its imminent downfall. Our thinking was sparked by theory from the Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott. In 1969, Gott visited the Berlin Wall and wondered how long it would remain in existence. Figuring that he had no special knowledge to make such a prediction, Gott reasoned that there was a simple way to determine its remaining time. If he were visiting the Wall 50 percent into its lifetime, then it would stand for another eight years (because it had already stood for eight years at that point). If, however, the Wall were just 5 percent into its lifetime, then it would stand for another 152 years. If it was 95 percent into its lifetime, it would remain for only another five months. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, 28 years old and solidly within the timeframe that Gott had predicted. (Using the same principle, Gott went on to forecast with about 95 percent accuracy the lifetime of 44 Broadway and off-Broadway shows). Gott's Principle, as it is now known, holds that the best estimate of a given entity's remaining duration is simply the length of time that it has already been in existence.

What does this have to do with climate change? Environmental decisions fundamentally rely on making tradeoffs. People must choose whether to sacrifice in the present (e.g., driving less) for potential benefits that might not be felt until much later. If people perceive their country or planet's remaining time to be very short, then they rationally shouldn't place too much importance on making these present-day sacrifices. But if a long future is seen, sacrifices today for a brighter tomorrow for ourselves and our offspring make more sense. Not that people go about their daily lives consciously thinking about the amount of time that their country (and the world) has left, but a longer past implicitly suggests a longer, and less uncertain future. Using Gott's Principle, we reasoned that citizens of countries with a longer past will also look further into the future and, as a result, be more willing to invest in the environment.

Along with our student Min Bang, we found evidence for this idea in two studies. First, we examined whether older countries would score higher on Yale's Environmental Performance Index. For country age, we used the year that a nation had become independent (e.g., 1776 for the United States); these dates are celebrated annually by citizens and are salient. As predicted, we found a strong positive correlation between country age and environmental performance, which held up when statistically controlling for GDP and a measure of political stability. In a follow-up experiment, we presented several hundred American research participants with one of two visual timelines. In one, the starting date of the U.S. was compared to the beginning of the Roman Empire, making our country look quite young by comparison. In the other, the U.S.'s starting date was compared to the date that Columbus sailed from Spain, making America look like an older country. The timelines had their intended effect: Participants thought that the U.S. was either "younger" or "older" depending on the image that they had been shown. But most importantly, the people who had seen the older timeline subsequently donated a significantly higher portion of their earnings to an environmental non-profit organization.

So as the dialogue on climate change continues, our research suggests to move away from end-of-world scenarios and to emphasize instead the various ways in which our country -- and our planet -- has a rich and long history that deserves to be preserved. By highlighting the shadow of the past, we may actually help illuminate the path to an environmentally sustainable future.

Elke U. Weber is the Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia University's Business School and a Co-Director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. Professor Weber works at the intersection of psychology and economics. She is an expert on behavioral models of judgment and decision making under risk and uncertainty. Recently she has been investigating psychologically appropriate ways to measure and model individual and cultural differences in risk taking, specifically in risky financial situations and environmental decision making and policy. Weber is past president of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, co-editor of Risk Decision & Policy and associate editor of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.