Get Regular Updates!



Gnangarra /

Changing climate, changing minds

Changing climate, changing minds

How invoking a sense of legacy could help prompt climate change action.

Changing climate, changing minds

More than 80% of Australians want action on climate change.

So what’s stopping us from doing more?

One of the major barriers is known as ‘intergenerational discounting’.

It’s essentially a lack of incentive for current generations to cooperate to reduce the impact of climate change on future generations.

But UWA psychologist Dr Mark Hurlstone and his colleagues have a strategy to help overcome it.

It involves invoking people’s sense of legacy.

Eventually, we all die

The researchers tested the strategy using an economic game that saw players given money they could choose to keep or invest in a climate protection account.

It was surprisingly successful.

Firstly, the researchers reminded players of their own mortality.

“It really gets people to think about how [they] want to be remembered when they pass away,” Mark says.

“Being reminded that you will eventually cease to exist on the Earth automatically gets people to think about their legacy.

“And people generally want to be remembered for positive reasons rather than for negative reasons.”

Protecting the powerless

Another technique the researchers used was highlighting the power asymmetry between current and future generations.

They pointed out that future generations who are yet to be born are powerless.

They have no say in the climate change problem, despite bearing the brunt of the impacts.

Mark says highlighting this makes tackling climate change a moral obligation.

View Larger

“We can sometimes be selfish,” he says.

“We can sometimes behave in ways that further our own self-interest rather than the interests of the people around us.

“One of the big exceptions to that is when those selfish actions may have negative repercussions on other individuals who are otherwise helpless to protect themselves.

“Then, that kind of selfish behaviour – even for quite selfish individuals – is a real turn-off.”

Our end of the intergenerational bargain

The final technique was reminding people of the sacrifices made by previous generations that benefit us today.

“The concrete example we gave was of World War 2 veterans from the Allied Forces and the sacrifices they made so that we could live the lifestyles that we live today,” Mark says.

“And then pointing out that there’s an opportunity there to reciprocate forward those beneficial actions to future generations.”

View Larger
Image|Extinction Rebellion

Mark says this technique plays to our sense of reciprocity.

“We know that reciprocity is a very powerful psychological force that governs our interactions with individuals,” he says.

“If I buy coffee for you and I meet you again, then you feel obliged to reciprocate and buy coffee for me.”

The twist is that the reciprocity here is indirect.

We can’t directly repay World War 2 veterans because most have passed away.

“But what we can do is indirectly reciprocate by making sacrifices ourselves for the benefit of future generations,” Mark says.

View Larger
Image|Carlos Brinmalami
The first Earth Day, Toronto, 1970

Reframing climate change

Mark says the strategy isn’t a silver bullet but was effective enough to make people in the study act as if they were receiving the benefits the next day.

Participants stood to take home up to $85 for about 30 minutes work in the lab if they acted selfishly. It’s the first time anyone has shown the effect using significant amounts of real money.

Mark says the research could reframe how we talk about climate change.

Where climate change communicators often sidestep the intergenerational nature of the problem, Mark argues it should be part of the conversation.

“You should ground it in an intergenerational context,” he says.

“But you need to tap into this legacy motive … whilst at the same time recognising that things are already getting pretty bad.”

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?