Why scaring people about climate change doesn’t work..

Do an image search of climate change and this is what you see. Why is it that the issue of climate change has been associated with fear rather than hope? Well on first guess the answer would be that fear or negative emotions in general, are better at seeking the attention of the user. Negative emotions trigger a survival instinct at an intrinsic level, which, no doubt, calls for attention, but is it the best way to deal with the issue?
Climate change image search

According to Carter (2011), negative emotions narrow our attention and limit our focus to the short term. “Under their influence we are less able to see the bigger picture, think creatively, and work collaboratively together to discover the ways through which long-term transformation change is possible” (Carter, 2011). Climate change isn’t gonna be ‘solved’ in a day, it needs long-term and sustainable behavioral change which can only be achieved through positive emotions like hope, awe, love and a sense of community.

There is mounting evidence that shows the positive influence of positive emotions not only on our cognition but also on our overall well-being. Studies have shown that they improve the likelihood of us having better relationships, higher self-esteem, less depression and reduced stress (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), our though-action repertoires (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005), our visual attention (Waldinger & Isaacowitz, 2006) and also our creativity (Rowe et al., 2007). This is just a snippet of a wide range of what i call ‘positive effect of positive affect’.

It is important to understand how designing initiatives and media interventions which promote positive emotions can achieve sustainable behavioral change in several issues where there is no ‘here and now’ solution. Be it climate change, obesity, world hunger or any other major global issue, inciting fear wouldn’t work in the long term.


Carter, D. M. (2011). Recognizing the role of positive emotions in fostering environmentally responsible behaviors. Ecopsychology, 3(1), 65-69.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19(3), 313– 332

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rowe, G., Hirsh, J. B., & Anderson, A. K. (2007). Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 383–388.

Wadlinger, H. A., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2006). Positive mood broadens visual attention to positive stimuli. Motivation and Emotion, 30(1), 89–101.

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