Reminders of Death Motivate Concern for Environmental Legacy – New Study Reveals

Researchers from three university business schools recently conducted a pair of ‘death priming’ experiments in which participants were tasked with making decisions about what to do with lottery winnings, and, how to allocate a new-found energy source. Those participants who received the death primes (i.e., subtle reminders of mortality) consistently gave more to “future others” when tasked with charitable or energy allocation decisions.

The 90 adult participants (65 of whom were females) were all asked to read a news item and to comment on the writing style (this was done to throw off participants as to the prime, or “manipulation”). They were then asked to fill out the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), engage in a word completion task, and respond to a survey designed to measure
‘generative motivations’, including concern for their lasting impact. They were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with each of these three statements:

It is important to me to leave a positive legacy for future generations.

I have made and created things that have had an impact on other people.

I feel that I have done something that will
survive after I die.”

Before any decision-making happened, some study subjects were primed with material (news articles or word lists) that subtly reminded them of their mortality, of their inevitable death. The remainder served as control groups and were not given any death primes.

The researchers wondered if such ‘mortality salience’ would motivate these subjects to act against their more typical instincts of reward-seeking in the present and/or giving to those we are personally connected to and whose benefiting we can see immediately. And so, they developed what they call and “ecologically-valid” prime to test this possibility.

It’s Human Nature to Seek Rewards in the Present

When we make decisions that involve some form of reward (including the reward we feel when giving to others), we tend to focus on those that deliver these rewards in the short-term. Previous studies have shown that we normally do not make decisions that have no personal benefit incentive, even knowing that our choice(s) would benefit “future others”. This is known as ‘intertemporal discounting’.

Consider this scenario: You have just purchased a lottery ticket. Your thoughts naturally dwell on what you will do with the money, how you will spend it, should you win. Your decision(s) about what to do with the money will largely be determined by your need or desire for rewarding yourself in the present. Now, a few of us might decide to give some or all of the money away to a charity that is helping people right now, in the present. But few of us would do so if we knew that the charitable giving would be enjoyed by “future others”, those we will most likely never meet or know.

A similar situation exists when dealing with environmental impacts; we humans live only about 70 years or so — far too short a time to see the collective impacts of our energy usage and consumer choices.  And so, our choices to drive certain kinds of cars, use certain types of fuel, consume certain kinds of products, are generally based upon how these will satisfy our present needs and desires (on a larger scale, this discounting is reflected in the false choice of “creating jobs versus protecting the environment”).

Our day-to-day, environmentally impacting decisions are seldom made on the basis of how these decisions and actions will impact future generations. This is referred to as ‘intergenerational discounting’ and it is the crux of what psychological researchers refer to as the ‘intergenerational dilemma.’ This discounting dilemma is enhanced by not knowing those (the “future others”) who might benefit from our choices in the future. Thus there is a ‘social distance’ in choosing to benefit those in the future, as well as a temporal one.

The research team, led by Dr. Wade-Benzoni, chose to focus on this dilemma  and to test whether subjects’ normal/expected decisions could be reversed — their ‘generative motivation’ increased —  through presenting some subjects with reminders of their mortality.

The Results of Two Experiments:

In both experiments, the experimenters’ hypothesis of positive ‘legacy motivation’ was validated.

“Creating a positive legacy offers people a means of symbolic immortality. This psychosocial benefit is powerful enough to overcome very basic human tendencies to discount the value of benefits that will be enjoyed by others in the future.”  — Kimberly Wade-Benzoni, Duke University Fuqua School of Business [quote source]

In the first experiment, subjects were told that their names were entered into a lottery in which they might win 1000.00. All were given the option of donating a portion of their potential winnings to a charity that was helping people  in the present (present-oriented), or, donating to a charity that would help other in the future (future-oriented). Those who received the primes (as opposed to “neutral material”, for the controls) opted to give more to the future-oriented charity.

In the second experiment, subjects were asked to play the role of vice president of a big energy corporation that had just discovered a new, efficient, inexpensive energy source. The study subjects then had to decide how much of the energy supply* their company should use “today”, versus, how much should be conserved and allocated to another recipient. Some study subjects were also given the option of donating to another organization that would see immediate benefit from the donation, while others were given the option of giving to another group that would benefit in the future, or, donating the allotment of energy to their own organization in the future. In each case, subjects were told the any beneficiaries would make better use of the energy in the future than their company would right now.

All participants were then asked to make their energy allocations, but some were given death primes (i.e., short tasks that tend to produce thoughts of mortality). To reveal their emotional connection to future generations of people, subjects were asked whether they felt any “affinity” for the future group.

Once again, study participants who received the mortality primes were more likely to allocate the energy supply for future beneficiaries. Further, this ‘generative motivation’ to help others in the future was linked to the subject’s sense of connectivity to those beneficiaries.

“Acting on the behalf of future generations can paradoxically represent a dramatic form of self-interest – immortality striving. Believing that we have made a difference by leaving a group, an organization, a professional field, or the world a better place helps us to gain a sense of purpose in our lives and buffer the threat of meaninglessness posed by death.” — Dr. Wade-Benzoni [quote source]

The researchers have described their results as ‘counter-intuitive’ in that, after mortality priming, subjects were more generous to future others than to present others.

And so it would appear that our intergenerational discounting — decision making on the basis of present benefits — can be reversed; primed with thoughts of death, our legacy motivation kicks in, and our decisions are more likely to promote ‘intergenerational benificence’.

This is rather fortunate for future generations (better late in life, than never).

After all, we all want History — those future others — to honor us, not condemn us.

The paper, ‘It’s Only a Matter of Time: Death, Legacies, and Intergenerational Decisions’, was published in the journal Psychological Science. Members of the research team included Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni, Richard Larrick (Fuqua School of Business, Duke University), Leigh Plunkett Tost (Ross School of Business, University of Michigan), and Morela Hernandez (Foster School of Business, University of Washington).

* Note: The researchers did not specify to the participants, at any point, whether or not the putative new energy source was finite or replenishable;  this was consistent throughout the experiments.

Top image: (Rockport, Mass. cemetery) M. Ricciardi

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