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Saving the Planet Feels Good

A new study explains how "warm-glow" helps us act green.

Decisions, decisions

Many life situations can be characterized as a social dilemma: we have to balance what is in our own interests against the interests of others and society. Yet, there is a fundamental asymmetry that characterizes all social dilemmas: If everyone helps sustain life on earth, we'd all be better off, but if no one does, we're all worse off. The dilemma is that at the individual level, the incentive goes in the opposite direction of cooperation, i.e., it is often cheaper and more convenient to act in our own self-interest.

A warm "glow"

Given this dilemma, economists frequently struggle to explain why people help others, especially when helping comes at a significant personal cost. James Andreoni first used the term "warm-glow" to denote the fuzzy warm feeling people experience when they give to charity, act kind, or help others in need. In fact, he suggested that the warm-glow of doing something good stands in contrast to the cold-prickle of doing something bad!

Much has been written about when, how, and why people behave altruistically, including the psychological and physical benefits that we receive from helping others in need. What fascinated me is whether or not people also derive a sense of warm-glow from helping to save the planet. For example, most of us have experienced emotional empathy, i.e., we instantaneously experience the emotions of others, for example, we may feel sad when we recognize suffering in others. But what about more abstract issues such as concern for the planet itself? Or future generations of strangers who haven't been born yet? Why would we incur a personal cost now, to help save a stranger from future global warming? These are difficult trade-offs for humans, which is problematic, because these exact trade-offs may very well determine the future of our species.

Yet, there is some reason to be optimistic. Recent research finds that some people experience a literal warm-glow when acting green: when participants did something to help the environment they perceived higher room temperatures compared to those who did not. Although important, the fact that people feel good after helping the environment does not tell us whether people help the environment because they anticipate that it will make them feel good, especially when doing so may be costly.

In a new study published today in the journal Nature Sustainability, I asked a nationally representative cohort of adults how positive or negative they would feel about helping to reduce climate change. Four weeks later, I followed up with the same individuals and asked them to report on a wide range of green behaviors, from buying local produce and switching off lights to buying green energy and insulating one's home. What I found was that the anticipated warm-glow from helping to save the planet does in fact predict green behavior four weeks later! This was true for both liberals and conservatives alike. However, a closer examination revealed that this correlation was much stronger for low-cost, easier actions, and much weaker for more effortful, high-cost behavior changes.

Feeling good vs. doing good

These results are consistent with philosopher Peter Singer's theory that warm-glow givers are emotional altruists who help because it makes them feel good, and not necessarily because it is the most logical or effective action one could take. For example, recycling may help people feel good about saving the environment, but practically, it's not the most impactful behavior (e.g., compared to buying green energy). Nonetheless, the finding that people derive and anticipate internal pleasure from helping to save the planet, even just a little, is something to be harnessed, nurtured, and celebrated.

I therefore disagree with the perspective that "emotional" altruism stands in the way of "effective" altruism—there is room for both. As comedian Bob Hope once said, if you haven't got any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.


van der Linden, S. (2018). Warm glow is associated with low but not high-cost sustainable behaviour. Nature Sustainability 1, 28-30.