Environmental issues have become so dramatically polarizing in our country. Flipping on the Sunday morning political talk shows is evidence of how strongly people feel on each side of the issue. While some of us are proud tree huggers, others are strongly opposed. And according to a recent story in The Washington Post, it’s left psychologists wondering why.
One study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, found that those who have great sensitivity to others are also more concerned with environmental issues. Researchers followed 2,000 people, asking them about their environmental behaviors, finding that those with “emotional empathy” were more likely to also be environmentalists.
According to The Washington Post:
[T]he study found a small- to moderate-sized correlation between this measure of empathy and environmental values — as well as environmental activities. For instance, reported the authors, “the stronger a participant’s dispositional compassion the higher the chance that they would donate to one or more nature or environmental organizations.”
In order to prove that empathy actually caused concern for the environment, researchers used a smaller sample–94 German University students. Participants were shown two sympathetic images: one of a homeless man and another of a sick child. One group was told to feel empathy and the other was told to stay neutral. Then each was asked about their green tendencies.
The group that was told to stay neutral had less environmental concern than the group that was asked to show empathy. According to the study, “[r]esults revealed that compassion was indeed positively related to proenvironmental values, proenvironmental intentions, and reported donations to nature or environmental organizations.”
Other research has found that some people that might normally be concerned with the environment are less so because they don’t want to associate with environmentalists. Researchers found that some people don’t want to be linked to activism as a whole because it conjures up negative feelings.
“By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity,” reported Pacific Standard.
This feeling is key to many people’s resistance to social change. Stereotypical views of environmentalists seem to push people away. Participants in the study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, used negative terms to describe environmental activists like unhygienic, typical environmentalists, and hippie.
“Unfortunately,” researchers write, reported by Pacific Standard, “the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping.”
This research is useful because it can help us better appeal to all groups, not just those that are typically drawn to environmental activism. What do you think of tree huggers?
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