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ASI seed money project "Environmental Leadership"

3 June 2024
Environmental Leadership: How Do Moral Frames and Rhetoric Interact to Foster Pro-Environmental Behaviour

Every year ASI awards seed money to promising interdisciplinary projects. "Environmental Leadership: How Do Moral Frames and Rhetoric Interact to Foster Pro-Environmental Behaviour" is one of four ASI seed money winners 2024.

Climate change represents a fundamental challenge for humanity, with significant negative consequences. Formal and informal environmental leaders have tried to convince people to act climate-friendly with symbolic actions and charismatic rhetoric (e.g., Al Gore or Greta Thunberg). Yet, instead of inspiring consensus and collective action, the topic of climate change has become increasingly polarized. 

A potential explanation is that environmental leaders frame the issue such that it does not resonate with certain climate-sceptic groups. Charismatic rhetoric, such as metaphors (e.g., “We treat our atmosphere like an open sewer”; see Al Gore), and the use different moral foundations (e.g., fairness vs. loyalty) can increase the effectiveness of a message appeal. Indeed, charismatic rhetoric can increase costly behaviours, keeping the topic and morality constant. However, charismatic rhetoric can backfire and increase opposition when the message framing is mismatched with an individual’s moral foundations. Moral foundations can be thought of as a music genre whereas charismatic rhetoric represents the music’s volume. If listeners enjoy the genre, increasing the volume may increase its attractive pull towards the goal; if listeners detest the genre, it may be acceptable on very low volume but probably repel them on high volume. 

We argue that message appeals based on both moral foundations and charismatic rhetoric could be especially effective when they match the recipients’ beliefs, and instead contribute to polarization when mismatched. Effective climate change communication helps reduce demand by influencing consumer preferences and increasing the acceptance of climate regulations. We aim to show how tailoring communication to individuals’ political ideology / moral foundations combined with charismatic rhetoric can enhance its effectiveness and mobilize people toward climate action. 

This project aims to make climate change communication more effective by considering both what is being said (i.e., moral foundations) and how it is being said (i.e., charismatic rhetoric). The research study will focus on liberals and conservatives in the Netherlands to explore (1) whether moral framing that matches people’s ideologies / moral foundations can effectively foster pro-environmental behaviours, (2) whether mismatches lead to further polarization, and (3) whether charismatic rhetoric can strengthen the relationships between message framing and behavioural outcome. 

Research Team

  • Dr Rafael Wilms, Assistant Professor, School of Business and Economics, Management and Organisation
  • Prof. Mark van Vugt, Full Professor, Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences, Organizational Psychology
  • Dr Emily Diamond, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies and Marine Affairs at University of Rhode Island
  • Dr Nicolas Bastardoz, Assistant Professor, Department Work and Organisation Studies, KU Leuven