21 December 2023
SDG Lab on Emotions: A Missing Link Towards Long-term Sustainability?
Geneva Graduate Institute master’s students Miantsa Rahenitsoa intervenes on the role of art and media as tools in emotional responses to sustainability.
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A first for UN Geneva, SDG Lab gathered affective science researchers, psychologists, and sustainability practitioners to discuss the links between emotions and sustainability.

The event was held to better understand how emotions can be used in communications, awareness, and behavior strategies to promote long-term sustainable actions.

A “cocktail” or a “Swiss army knife” of emotions that balance positive and negative emotions for different purposes and over different timescales, e.g., short term and long term, is central to having meaningful and long-lasting impact.

This article originally appeared on SDGLab.ch, a multi-stakeholder social innovation space for the SDGs and long-term sustainability, anchored in UN Geneva. IISD proudly serves as a strategic partner to SDG Lab.

On 29 November 2023, SDG Lab at UN Geneva convened an in-depth discussion on the role of emotions and affective sciences in advancing the SDGs and long-term sustainability. As part of the ‘What’s Next Series,’ the discussion engaged academics, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners across disciplines to explore how tapping into emotions can support a broader sustainable societal transition. The event nurtured a constructive space where evidence intersected with policymaking.

The exchange, in collaboration with the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva, the American Psychological Association, the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations, and the Federation of Swiss Psychologists, was informed by SDG Lab’s thought leadership contribution to a special issue of the academic journal Emotions Review exploring this topic, published in August 2023. Two of the journal’s co-editors, Professors Tobias Brosch (University of Geneva) and Disa Sauter (University of Amsterdam), also featured prominently in the event.

From intentions to actions: What’s the role of emotions?

Emotions are inherent to being human. They influence all aspects of our daily lives – from the choices we make to the decisions we take. Yet, factoring in emotions as a crucial component of sustainable development has been lacking. And while the links between emotions and sustainability are clear, there has been limited effort to infuse the two areas in support of accelerating the shift to long-term sustainable actions. 

Against this background, the What’s Next event was designed with three overarching questions in mind: 1) How can we better understand what motivates action? 2) Which emotions are most likely to trigger pro-sustainability behaviors? and 3) How can this knowledge be applied to strategies and practical policymaking.

Kicking off the discussion Brosch presented behavioral science research highlighting how people do not always behave rationally but their actions are shaped by a variety of factors that include cognitive biases and affect. He noted emotions play a central role in guiding our behavior, including how we react when faced with complex challenges such as the climate and nature crises. 

Brosch underscored how affective sciences complement this field of research, trying to understand how emotions emerge and influence our judgement and ultimately our behavior. He explained that affect has been shown to be the single most powerful prediction of willingness to act. Underscoring this point, Brosch shared insights from a study on climate crisis communication. A meta-analysis of over 100 experimental studies showed that out of the five different strategies applied, using affective mechanisms – emotions – was the only strategy that led to concrete climate action.

Sparking an emotional readiness to act

The panel that followed dove deeper into questions of how sustainability practitioners can use emotions to spur change. Sauter shared that, initially, the field of behavioral science was primarily concerned with the cognitive biases and social norms that influence certain behaviors and actions. For example, people are often more concerned with losses than gains, with a bias towards concern for near-future losses. As she noted, this impedes actions concerned with long-term impact. It became evident to researchers that a key aspect was absent, with emotions most likely to be that missing ingredient. 

Branka Zei Pollermann, a Geneva-based linguist and psychologist, spoke to the intrinsic need of emotional motivation to create a readiness to act. From her perspective, this requires a balanced “cocktail” of emotions – both positive (e.g., pride) and negative (e.g., shame or fear) – to motivate behaviors on different time horizons. Furthermore, Zei Pollermann categorized an individual’s readiness to act into three types of motivations: intra-subject (individual level); inter-subject (family, community level); and trans-subject (earth, nature). To encourage long-term change, activating trans-subject motivation is particularly important. 

Sauter furthered the point by encouraging the development and use of a “Swiss army knife” of emotions to surface certain reactions in a nuanced way. For instance, on the climate crisis, people need to be alarmed, she noted, but long-term exposure to anxiety-inducing and negative emotions can paralyze and result in inaction. Finding a healthy equilibrium is key, she underscored.

Taking emotions from research to practice

Speaking from the perspective of a policy practitioner, Garrette Clark, Sustainable Lifestyles Programme Officer, UN Environment in Paris, zeroed in on the challenges of promoting lifestyles that are not only aligned with the SDGs, but also respond to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution, and nature loss. Doing so, she noted, requires significant changes in how people eat, dress, move, and enjoy themselves as well as where they live, such as the type of dwellings they inhabit. Clark stressed these changes are mostly perceived through the negative lens of loss bias, of letting go of things valued and cherished. To move beyond this situation, she underscored engaging with young people and applying diverse communication strategies, such as mobilizing influencers, to effectively communicate messages about sustainable living that resonates with them and frames sustainability in a positive and beneficial light.

A Q&A session was opened by two master’s students from the University of Geneva – Pallavi Baraya and Miantsa Rahenitsoa – who questioned the global applicability of emotional strategies and tools, asking whether there are cultural and contextual differences to take into consideration. In a similar vein, they inquired on the role of art and media in emotional strategies to spur action. The panelists acknowledged the complexity of emotions and culture, and Zei Pollermann noted different cultures have certain norms and generalizations of how emotions are read, understood, and displayed.

Building on this comment, Sauter added that policymakers need to consider different “emotional lenses” in different cultural contexts, and Clark echoed this remark, stressing the relevance of locally tailored approaches and communication strategies.

What’s next for emotions and sustainability?

Event moderator and SDG Lab Senior Advisor Edward Mishaud questioned the panelists on what’s next for the field of affective sciences and sustainability. Although much of the conversation centered on climate action, the panelists agreed on the necessity to expand the research on emotions across the broader sustainable development agenda, such as gender equality, and to explore how the worlds of art and media can be more included. One audience member highlighted the applicability of bringing emotions research into governance and the multilateral negotiation process.

Panelists were also prompted to speak to the usefulness of anger, an emotion that is often incited by climate activists through actions such as road blockages, protests, and other actions. While they acknowledged the power of anger to arouse strong emotional responses and subsequent actions, they equally cautioned that focusing solely on anger as a strategy is not sustainable in the long term as it is both emotionally and physically draining for the individual.

Christoph Steinebach, President of the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA), shared brief words on behalf of the event partners, recognizing the strong turnout demonstrates growing interest in and importance of affective sciences and sustainability.

The talk was closed by SDG Lab Director Özge Aydogan who invited participants to consider how they will take forward the information shared during the session. She noted the Lab will be focusing on embedding constructive hope in its activities and communications going forward. Despite this contrasting with current approaches, such as activating fear and anger, she underscored the responsibility of SDG Lab and others to elicit positive emotions through their work.

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