Climatic Change

, Volume 137, Issue 1–2, pp 307–319 | Cite as

Collective responsibility amplifies mitigation behaviors

  • Nick ObradovichEmail author
  • Scott M. Guenther


How can individuals be convinced to act on climate change? It is widely assumed that emphasizing personal responsibility for climate change is effective at increasing pro-climate behavior whereas collectively framing the causes of climate change diffuses responsibility and dampens the incentive for individual action. We observe the opposite result. Here we find, across three experiments, that emphasizing collective responsibility for the causes of climate change increases pro-climate monetary donations by approximately 7 % in environmental group members and by 50 % in the general public. Further, highlighting collective responsibility amplifies intent to reduce future carbon emissions. In contrast, focusing on personal responsibility for climate change does not significantly alter donations to climate change advocacy or the intent for future pro-climate behavior. These effects replicate and persist multiple days after treatment.


Climate change responsibility Prosocial behavior Climate change mitigation 



This work was supported by the NSF (grant #DGE0707423 to N.O.), and by the Skoll Global Threats Fund (to N.O. and S.M.G.). We thank G. Kreitler, L. Pomper, and the National Audubon Society for their assistance with recruitment and thank J. Burney, J. Fowler, E. Keenan, S. Kerosky, R. Migliorini, D. Victor, members of the UCSD Human Nature Group, and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

Author contributions

N.O. designed the experiment, analyzed the data, produced figures and tables, and drafted the manuscript and supplementary information. S.M.G. edited the manuscript and supplementary information. Both authors developed the research question.

Supplementary material

10584_2016_1670_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (2.3 mb)
(PDF 2.26 MB)


  1. Aknin LB, Dunn EW, Norton MI (2012) Happiness runs in a circular motion: evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness. J Happiness Stud 13:347–355CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Basil DZ, Ridgway NM, Basil MD (2006) Guilt appeals: the mediating effect of responsibility. Psychol Mark 23(12):1035–1054CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berger J, Meredith M, Wheeler SC (2008) Contextual priming: where people vote affects how they vote. Proc Natl Acad Sci 105(26):8846–8849CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Berinsky AJ, Huber GA, Lenz GS (2012) Evaluating online labor markets for experimental research:’s Mechanical Turk. Polit Anal 20(3):351–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bolsen T, Druckman JN, Cook FL (2014) Communication and collective actions: a survey experiment on motivating energy conservation in the US. Journal of Experimental Political Science 1(01):24–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brekke KA, Johansson-Stenman O (2008) The behavioural economics of climate change. Oxf Rev Econ Policy 24(2):280–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brügger A, Dessai S, Devine-Wright P, Morton TA, Pidgeon NF (2015) Psychological responses to the proximity of climate change. Nat Clim ChangGoogle Scholar
  8. Buhrmester M, Kwang T, Gosling SD (2011) Amazon’s Mechanical Turk a new source of inexpensive, yet high-quality, data? Perspect Psychol Sci 6(1):3–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cohen J (1990) Things I have learned (so far). Am Psychol 45(12):1304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Doherty TJ, Clayton S (2011) The psychological impacts of global climate change. Am Psychol 66(4):265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dunn EW, Aknin LB, Norton MI (2008) Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science 319(5870):1687–1688CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Eden SE (1993) Individual environmental responsibility and its role in public environmentalism. Environ Plan A 25(12):1743–1758CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Elliot AJ, Devine PG (1994) On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: dissonance as psychological discomfort. J Pers Soc Psychol 67(3):382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Ferguson MA, Branscombe NR (2010) Collective guilt mediates the effect of beliefs about global warming on willingness to engage in mitigation behavior. J Environ Psychol 30(2):135–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Festinger L (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance, vol 2. Stanford University PressGoogle Scholar
  16. Fujita K, Clark SL, Freitas AL (2014) Think globally, act locally: construal levels and environmentally relevant decision-making. Encouraging Sustainable Behavior: Psychology and the Environment:87–107Google Scholar
  17. Galinsky AD, Gruenfeld DH, Magee JC (2003) From power to action. J Pers Soc Psychol 85(3):453CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gifford R (2011) The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. Am Psychol 66(4):290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gneezy U, Meier S, Rey-Biel P (2011) When and why incentives (don’t) work to modify behavior. J Econ Perspect:191–209Google Scholar
  20. Hassin RR, Ferguson MJ, Shidlovski D, Gross T (2007) Subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behavior. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104(50):19757–19761CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hibbert S, Smith A, Davies A, Ireland F (2007) Guilt appeals: persuasion knowledge and charitable giving. Psychol Mark 24(8):723–742CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hill SE, DelPriore DJ, Vaughan PW (2011) The cognitive consequences of envy: attention, memory, and self-regulatory depletion. J Pers Soc Psychol 101(4):653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Howe PD, Mildenberger M, Marlon JR, Leiserowitz A (2015) Geographic variation in opinions on climate change at state and local scales in the USA. Nat Clim Chang 5(6):596–603CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Howell RA (2014) Investigating the long-term impacts of climate change communications on individuals attitudes and behavior. Environ Behav 46(1):70–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jones WH, Schratter AK, Kugler K (2000) The guilt inventory. Psychol Rep 87(3f):1039–1042CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kercher K (1992) Assessing subjective well-being in the old-old: the PANAS as a measure of orthogonal dimensions of positive and negative affect. Res Aging 14 (2):131–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Klein RA, Ratliff KA, Vianello M, Adams RB Jr., Bahník Š, Bernstein MJ, Bocian K, Brandt MJ, Brooks B, Brumbaugh CC, et al. (2014) Investigating variation in replicability: A many labs replication project. Soc Psychol 45 (3):142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kugler K, Jones WH (1992) On conceptualizing and assessing guilt. J Pers Soc Psychol 62(2):318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mackinnon A, Jorm AF, Christensen H, Korten AE, Jacomb PA, Rodgers B (1999) A short form of the positive and negative affect schedule: evaluation of factorial validity and invariance across demographic variables in a community sample. Personal Individ Differ 27(3):405–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Manucia GK, Baumann DJ, Cialdini RB (1984) Mood influences on helping: Direct effects or side effects?. J Pers Soc Psychol 46(2):357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Markowitz EM, Shariff AF (2012) Climate change and moral judgement. Nat Clim Chang 2(4):243–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Rickard LN, Yang ZJ, Seo M, Harrison TM (2014) The I in climate: The role of individual responsibility in systematic processing of climate change information. Glob Environ Chang 26:39–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Riley RD, Lambert PC, Abo-Zaid G, et al. (2010) Meta-analysis of individual participant data: rationale, conduct, and reporting. Bmj:340Google Scholar
  34. Sniderman PM, Piazza T, Tetlock PE, Kendrick A (1991) The new racism. Am J Polit Sci:423–447Google Scholar
  35. Staats H, Harland P, Wilke HAM (2004) Effecting durable change: a team approach to improve environmental behavior in the household. Environ Behav 36 (3):341–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Stoll-Kleemann S, O’Riordan T, Jaeger CC (2001) The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Glob Environ Chang 11(2):107–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Tangney JP, Stuewig J, Mashek DJ (2007) Moral emotions and moral behavior. Annu Rev Psychol 58:345CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Tomz M, Van Houweling RP (2009) The electoral implications of candidate ambiguity. Am Polit Sci Rev 103(01):83–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Trope Y, Liberman N (2010) Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychol Rev 117(2):440CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Watson D, Clark LA, Tellegen A (1988) Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: the PANAS scales. J Pers Soc Psychol 54 (6):1063CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Wells VK, Ponting CA, Peattie K (2011) Behaviour and climate change: Consumer perceptions of responsibility. J Mark Manag 27(7–8):808–833CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. White H (1980) A heteroskedasticity-consistent covariance matrix estimator and a direct test for heteroskedasticity. Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society:817–838Google Scholar
  43. Wohl MJA, Branscombe NR, Klar Y (2006) Collective guilt: emotional reactions when one’s group has done wrong or been wronged. Eur Rev Soc Psychol 17 (1):1–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Zimbardo PG, Cohen AR, Weisenberg M, Dworkin L, Firestone I (1966) Control of pain motivation by cognitive dissonance. Science 151(3707):217–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science, Scripps Institution of OceanographyUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

Personalised recommendations