This blog post, provided by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center and written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Christine Boomsma, Ph.D., Sabine Pahl, Ph.D., & Jackie Andrade, Ph.D.
- Being able to form vivid mental imagery about climate change and the environment supports motivation to form pro-environmental attitudes and behavioural intentions.
- Visuals that evoke an emotional response promote vivid mental imagery.
Implications for Public Relations
The results of this study show that using emotional visuals can be an effective strategy for changing attitudes and behaviours around climate change and other environmental issues. Emotionally-charged images are more likely internalized as mental imagery, which plays a role in setting goals and behavioural intentions. Being able to imagine relevant outcomes or emotional states sustains motivation to act on goals.
Public relations professionals facing the difficult challenge of changing attitudes toward environmental issues and encourage pro-environmental behaviours should evaluate which images produce vivid mental imagery and use them in their communications. Climate change communication often uses global or abstract images which do not help convey personal relevance. Instead, images that provide concrete information about environmental issues, such as the impact on local or familiar spaces, are better suited. This strategy may also be helpful for communicating other topics that are difficult to understand and connect with.
Changing people’s attitude and behaviour around climate change and other environmental issues can be difficult because they find the information overly complex or do not perceive the impact as relevant to them. Presenting visuals, like photographs, is a commonly used communication strategy because they attract attention, evoke emotional responses, and convey complicated information in a more accessible manner. Visuals also support the development of mental imagery which helps shift attitudes and motivates intentions and behaviour. However, research on how environmental visuals are used in media suggests that they are too abstract or lack sufficient context to present climate change as a personally relevant issue. As a result, people do not internalize the visuals into their mental imagery or engage in pro-environmental behaviour.
Boomsma and colleagues conducted three studies to evaluate how different environmental issues are internalized and contribute to pro-environmental attitudes and behavioural intentions. In each study, participants saw a piece of environmental communication with visuals about marine plastic pollution, energy conservation in the home, or future outcomes of climate change.
The results showed that pro-environmental thoughts and goals correlated with how easily participants were able to form mental images about the environment and how vivid those images were. Comparing emotionally negative and positive images, the presentation of either led to equally vivid mental imagery. When recalling information from the presentations, participants also recalled details from the visual components more often than text.
Together, these findings demonstrate that environmental visuals seen in the media or through other communications are internalized as mental imagery that influences attitudes and behaviours. Using emotionally charged visuals that demonstrate concrete personal relevance can help people form more vivid mental images, which motivates setting more pro-environmental goals.
Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li.
Boomsma, Christine, Pahl, Sabine, & Andrade, Jackie. (2016). Imagining change: An integrative approach toward explaining the motivational role of mental imagery in pro-environmental behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1780. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01780