How Minds Change On-Screen and at Home

By Anirudh Tiwathia and Ellis Watamanuk

Your stories have the power to change hearts and minds—and you don’t just have to take our word for it. Science says! If you’re interested in the psychology behind how those hearts and minds are changed—and how you can optimize your influence—here’s an inside look, sourced from Rare’s work at the Center for Behavior and the Environment, as well as other psychologists working on climate solutions.

Normalizing climate action

What do you think is the best predictor of climate action? Political orientation? Climate concern? Nope. By far, it’s whether a person believes that other people are already taking action—which turns out to matter even more than their own belief that they should take action. All of which means that when climate-friendly actions are depicted on-screen as common, normal, and expected, viewers will be more likely to change their behavior.

Positive reinforcement, not skepticism

People are social. Their senses are finely tuned to how new behaviors are received by their group. If climate-friendly actions on-screen are received by other characters with interest, support, or acceptance, audiences are more likely to adopt them themselves. On the other hand, if a character is ridiculed, ostracized, or punished for taking a given action, people notice and take it as a warning.

The messenger matters

Audiences care about who is adopting a behavior. People are a lot more likely to adopt a climate-friendly behavior if they see it done by a character they identify with, care about, or whose perspective they value—and a lot less likely to take on actions associated with “the other side,” or someone they despise. Actions signal group identity. Red shirt vs green shirt!

Showing the struggle to change

Changing behavior is hard, and it helps to see others going through the struggle.

Real people have genuine doubts and resistance, which, as we all know, is the stuff of many great stories. Showing your characters facing down their barriers to change and growing in the process helps the viewer imagine themselves doing the same. It makes audiences feel more capable, which makes them more likely to try something new.

The many reasons for change

People have multiple and overlapping reasons for adopting climate-friendly behaviors—racial justice, personal health, saving money, or just being fashionable. Your characters can too. Seeing these different motivations on-screen lets the audience bring the behavior into their lives through the pathway that feels right to them.

Acknowledging fears without reinforcing doubts

People have genuine doubts about various climate-friendly behaviors. Plant-based diets are sometimes seen as bland, not filling, and “unmanly”; rooftop solar panels are perceived as expensive or “ugly”; EVs are believed to have limited range, and so on. There are perceived hurdles to each climate-friendly behavior. Acknowledging those doubts and fears can be helpful, but doing so without attempting to alleviate doubts may end up reinforcing them. So if your plot requires a power outage, let the utility grid fail, rather than the solar-powered home batteries. Our Library of Experts are available to help you think through the details of showing climate-friendly behaviors on screen!

Aspiration makes behaviors attractive

Low-carbon lifestyles can be glam, high-end, and sexy too. The billionaires and fashionistas in your shows can eat plant-based meals in Michelin 3-star restaurants in NYC, London, or Paris (or anywhere on the Michelin Green Star list), or cruise the seas in solar-powered luxury yachts—all without missing a beat. Aspiration is a powerful lever for audiences. These actions don’t have to be chores! And even in the lowly realms that the rest of us occupy, joy and pleasure will be key to sustaining climate action in the long run.

Climate change encompasses the full range of emotions

Climate stories so often rely on fear. Emotions are a powerful tool for change, and fear isn’t the only tool in the kit. Each emotion has its place in encouraging climate action: hope encourages people to start something new, pride motivates them to take action and show others, joy helps sustain their actions, anger encourages them to confront injustice and demand change. That’s a big palette to paint with.

Stories can also tie those emotions to actions. It’s empowering for an audience to see a character processing emotions and taking action from a place of growth.

Anirudh Tiwathia

✍🏾 Anirudh Tiwathia is a behavioral scientist and public policy specialist who works on pathways to encourage climate action. At Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment, Anirudh focuses on the use of mass media and entertainment to influence climate beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. In previous work, he examined the psychological underpinnings of liberal democracy and the antecedents of voluntary compliance. Anirudh has also worked for tech start-ups and in intergovernmental organizations like UNDP and UNICEF. He holds an MBA and PhD (Behavioral Policy) from the Booth School of Business; an MA (Public Policy) and a PhD (Cognitive Psychology) from the University of Chicago; and a BA from Vassar College.

✍🏻 Ellis Watamanuk is a media impact producer and strategist working at the intersection of storytelling and climate action. He’s worked on campaigns for Blackfish, Paris to Pittsburgh, Other Side of the Hill, and more. In addition to his work in climate, he has led impact campaigns for films like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, We the Animals, and A Thousand Cuts, and distributed films including The Miseducation of Cameron Post. As the senior director of entertainment at Rare, he brings the organization’s behavioral science expertise to the entertainment industry, leveraging the power of storytelling to create new cultural norms around climate.