I recently asked half of the students in my green infrastructure class to respond to the following prompt: think about the ways in which you would have a positive impact on future generations. The other half of the class wrote about all the things they had to do that day—a long list for most since it was the end of the semester.  About five minutes later, I told everybody that one person in the class would be randomly selected to win a three dollar prize.  That person could donate all or part of the money to a local land trust.  Then I asked them to write down how much they would donate if they won.  After we tallied the responses, we found that the students who wrote the essay about their legacy would donate, on average, $2.00 of their bonus prize. Those who reflected on the day’s chores offered an average of $0.84. 

This class exercise was a loose replication of a more controlled, online experiment done by Lisa Zaval, Ezra Markowitz, and Elke Weber (2015).  They wanted to know if thinking about one’s legacy could lead to climate change action.  To find out, they assigned each of their 312 participants to one of two groups. One group wrote the essay that prompted them to think about their impact on future generations—their legacy.  Then both groups answered a series of questions about their climate change beliefs and behavioral intentions, and were given the opportunity to donate ten bonus dollars to Trees for the Future.  Just like my class, the participants who were asked to write about their legacy donated significantly more money (an average of about a $1.00 more) than those who were not prompted to think about their future selves.

I was surprised that the results in my class were so close to those of Zaval and her colleagues.  Perhaps I should not have been. Although I cannot say that we had rigorous experimental control, the students were responding to the prompt in earnest. One said that he contemplated his values, another thought about what it meant to be majoring in sustainable science. They, like the participants in Zaval et al. (2015), were lured to donate by introspection.  Imagine if change were as simple as having people contemplate the mark they want to leave on the world.  We need more formal study of the issue, but in the meantime—try thinking about the ways in which you can have a positive impact on future generations.

Zaval, L., Markowitz, E.M., & Weber, E. U. (2015). How will I be remembered? Conserving the environment for the sake of one’s legacy. Psychological Science, 26, 231-236.

Cartoons by Kevin Kite and Michelle McCauley, http://www.hurryuppleaseitstime.com

About the Author

Michele Wick Ph.D.

Michele Wick, Ph.D., is a writer, licensed psychologist, and research associate in the Psychology Department at Smith College.

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