Climatic Change

, Volume 130, Issue 3, pp 439–452 | Cite as

Guilty conscience: motivating pro-environmental behavior by inducing negative moral emotions

  • Jonas H. ReesEmail author
  • Sabine Klug
  • Sebastian Bamberg


Conceptual frameworks in the realm of climate-related policy, attitudes and behavior frequently argue that moral emotions play a crucial role in mobilizing pro-environmental action. Yet, little is known about the direct impact of moral emotions on environmental attitudes and behavior. Drawing on emotion research in the context of intergroup relations, the current paper investigates the role of guilty conscience (guilt and shame) as well as other emotions (anger, sadness, pride, and emotional coldness) in motivating pro-environmental behavior intentions and actual behavior as a specific form of reparative action. When confronted with human-caused (vs. seemingly natural) environmental damages, participants (N = 114) reported significantly more guilty conscience. Importantly, participants in the human-caused condition were significantly more likely to spontaneously display actual pro-environmental behavior (sign a petition addressing environmental issues). Highlighting its psychological significance in motivating pro-environmental behavior, a guilty conscience mediated the experimental manipulation’s effect on behavioral intentions as well as on actual behavior. We conclude by discussing the potential of moral emotions in developing timely and sustainable climate policies and interventions.


Actual Behavior Behavioral Intention Environmental Damage Environmental Behavior Moral Emotion 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The research presented in this paper was facilitated by the North Rhine-Westphalian Ministry for Innovation, Science, and Research. The authors would like to thank Gerd Bohner, Marco Grasso, Megan Hurst, Ezra Markowitz, Susanne Täuber, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

Supplementary material

10584_2014_1278_MOESM1_ESM.doc (26 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 26 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonas H. Rees
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Sabine Klug
    • 1
  • Sebastian Bamberg
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyBielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany
  2. 2.Department of Social SciencesBielefeld University of Applied SciencesBielefeldGermany

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