Thinking About Your Own Demise Inspires Environmentalism

Photo: Doug88888

Some people have kids. Some make charitable donations. Some write memoirs. Pondering our inevitable death has a way of inspiring us to get off the couch and leave our mark on the world in whatever way we deem most significant.  Now, saving the planet can be added to that list.

Time philosophizes on how dwelling on our own mortality makes us go green:

Momentary social cues about death, such as reading about a death in the newspaper or walking past a funeral hall, activate the “legacy motive,” which contributes to the drive to gain a sense of purpose in life and to make an impact that will live on after death. The legacy motive enables us to look past inherent barriers to the use of resources in ways that will leave resources for the future, rather than immediate consumption by individuals in the present.

In other words, death overrides our preoccupation with the immediate present, expanding out outlook to include far beyond narrow self-interest. Sustainable resource use – emitting less CO2, sparing rainforest for future generations, recycling – is often hindered by our reluctance make decisions that will benefit not us but future generations. Researchers decided to test whether or not people would be more willing to sacrifice for the planet when presented with their own deaths.

They presented 54 graduate students at a U.S. university with two articles to read: one describing an aircraft brake failure accident that resulted in one death, and another neutral story about a Russian mathematician. They then measured “present beneficence” in terms of the amount of money the individuals indicated they would donate to an organization that serves “impoverished communities” right now, and “future beneficence” in terms of the amount that they would donate to a charity focused on creating future improvements in those same communities. They found that those participants who had read the article about the freak accident said they would give more money to the future-oriented charity than to the present-oriented one.

They conducted a second test where they had each participant act as the vice president of an energy company. When the hypothetical company acquired a new, inexpensive, efficient energy source, participants had to decide how much of the energy they would consume today and how much they would give to another recipient. They were exposed to the same death priming as in the first experiment. The researchers found once again that those exposed to thoughts of mortality were more likely to allocate their energy to an organization that would benefit in the future – and they also noticed that this benevolence seemed significantly correlated with the individuals’ sense of connection to the hypothetical future organizations.

The researchers are still puzzling over how they can use the death threat findings as a way to encourage real-world individuals to chose the path of environmentalism.

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