Why Thinking About Your Death May Prompt You to Save the Planet

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Nicholas DeVore

Thinking about your own death isn’t usually the most pleasant experience, but it can be a beneficial one. Reminders of our own mortality can increase our desire to make decisions that will leave long-term, positive impacts on generations to come, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.

Momentary social cues about death, such as reading about a death in the newspaper or walking past a funeral hall, activate the “legacy motive,” which contributes to the drive to gain a sense of purpose in life and to make an impact that will live on after death. The legacy motive enables us to look past inherent barriers to the use of resources in ways that will leave resources for the future, rather than immediate consumption by individuals in the present.

“That kind of motive can override narrow, self-interested behavior,” study co-author and University of Michigan assistant professor Leigh Tost said.

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The most common barriers to sustainable resource use, according to study co-author and Duke University associate professor Kimberly Wade-Benzoni, are the time lag between present action and future results as well as the tradeoffs endured by present individuals as they make room for future generations of people.

“You’d expect people to be willing to sacrifice more for other people in the present as compared to others in the future,” Wade-Benzoni said. “But if you act on behalf of future others you do get to leave a legacy, and that’s a psychosocial benefit that helps overcome these barriers to intergenerational generosity.” The authors also noted that death priming – that is, reminders of death – helps individuals feel more strongly connected to others in the future than in the present, increasing their incentive to act on behalf of others in the future.

“The tenor of other work had primarily been that [the idea of mortality] evokes anxiety and defensiveness, and it seemed very closed in,” Tost explained. “But we thought it could do a lot of positive things too.”

The authors conducted two experiments to get their results. In the first, they presented 54 graduate students at a U.S. university with two articles to read: one describing an aircraft brake failure accident that resulted in one death, and another neutral story about a Russian mathematician. They then measured “present beneficence” in terms of the amount of money the individuals indicated they would donate to an organization that serves “impoverished communities” right now, and “future beneficence” in terms of the amount that they would donate to a charity focused on creating future improvements in those same communities. They found that those participants who had read the article about the freak accident said they would give more money to the future-oriented charity than to the present-oriented one.

“The results were very much what we expected,” Tost said.

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But Wade-Benzoni and Tost wanted to learn more about the specific factors that led those exposed to death priming to want to leave a legacy – so they conducted a second test where they had each participant act as the vice president of an energy company. When the hypothetical company acquired a new, inexpensive, efficient energy source, participants had to decide how much of the energy they would consume today and how much they would give to another recipient. They were exposed to the same death priming as in the first experiment. The researchers found once again that those exposed to thoughts of mortality were more likely to allocate their energy to an organization that would benefit in the future – and they also noticed that this benevolence seemed significantly correlated with the individuals’ sense of connection to the hypothetical future organizations.

Wade-Benzoni and Tost hope their findings will add to conversations about environmental policy, particularly as policymakers attempt to promote more environmentally sustainable behaviors. Tost noted that environmental policies are often aimed at affecting individuals and firms in situations very much like the types of decision-making situations her team studied.

“[The findings] suggest to me that in encouraging environmental decisions that are sustainable, we don’t just have to rely on ethical norms that say you ought to behave this way, but we can elevate the framework of those types of appeals to a higher level,” she said. “Think about what impact you want your life to have on people living 20, 40, 100 years from now. Think about how much power you have as an individual to impact the experience of people living on this earth after you’ve gone.” And the legacy motive goes beyond environmental policy – it may generally encourage individuals in organizations to sacrifice their immediate self-interest to benefit their companies in the long term, Tost said.

It remains to be seen how we can remind people of their own mortality as they make environmental or organizational decisions. But it’s nice to know that an effective impetus for action does seem to exist. “We know we’re going to die, so we want to create some meaning for our lives,” Wade-Benzoni said. “Leaving a legacy helps us to do that.”

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Tara Thean is a contributor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @tarathean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.