I once heard a politician say the public fears change more than death. Few would argue change can be a hard sell. When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, this poses serious questions for social scientists. For example, what will inspire behavioural transformations around climate change that will benefit future generations?

Researchers based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and University of Pennsylvania have been exploring this topic. They found an ‘intergenerational reciprocity approach’ could help mainstream habits. This means getting people to think about the sacrifices made by previous generations for their benefit. The idea being to imbue people with a moral obligation to act in a way that is in the best interests of future generations.

“The question is how to motivate people to care for future generations. Other researchers have shown that reciprocity can be a powerful motivator. If someone does something for my benefit, that creates a sense of obligation to reciprocate, but if I can’t reciprocate directly for some reason, I might instead try to “pay it forward.” In our experiments, we tried to take that idea and scale it up to get people to feel a moral obligation to future generations by having them reflect on what people in previous generations had done for them,” said Hanne Melgård Watkins

In the study carried out by Hanne and Geoffrey Goodwin – from the University of Pennsylvania – the pair said of intergenerational reciprocity that “our studies revealed that such reflection – on sacrifices made by past generations – predicts and causes a heightened sense of moral obligation towards future generations, mediated by gratitude.” Their work is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin -published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

So the next time you’re sitting around the dinner table with the family, have a go at discussing some of the moral obligations that exist between generations. Selling this concept will likely do more to mainstream sustainable behaviours, like buying circular economy products, than adopting a lecturing approach ever will.