Accentuate the Positive for Environmental Change

A Belgian public
survey on greener energy consumption has found that positive
messages about environmental issues may be more effective than
negative messages in encouraging behavioural change for large
sections of the public.

The researchers suggest this can help policy planners devise
targeted communications strategies.

Different sectors of the public are sensitive to the way in
which information is presented to them. The researchers explored
public responses to communications about energy and environmental
problems which suggest that individuals can personally do something
about these issues.

For example, they could use less energy or more renewable energy
sources, such as biofuels.

They conducted an internet survey of 260 respondents living in
Belgium which contained questions about what respondents knew and
felt about the environment, with an emphasis on energy use and

In addition, the survey contained a message about energy and
environmental issues and urged people to do something to address
these problems.

Participants in the survey received one of two versions of the
message. Both had similar contents, but one of the messages was
negatively framed and the other message was positively framed.

The negative message stressed the seriousness of environmental
and energy problems and the damaging consequences, such as greater
pollution, higher energy prices and threatened energy security.

In contrast, the positively framed message emphasised what could
be gained by changing behaviour, such as reduced environmental
pollution and greater energy security. Participants were asked how
they thought the message they read would influence their behaviour,
as well as other people’s behaviour.

The study found that many respondents had only a limited
understanding of alternative energy sources, such as biofuels, and
wanted more information. These respondents tended to be younger
than 35 years old or older than 55 years, were less well educated
and the majority were women.

The positive message raised their level of concern and the
desire to change behaviour and could therefore be more effective
than a negatively framed message. For example, having read the
positive message, women reported that they were more likely to be
interested in choosing energy-efficient cars or using more biofuels
in place of fossil fuels.

However, for respondents between the ages of 35 and 55, concern
about environmental and energy issues was not increased by either
type of message and they did not become more inclined to change
their behaviour. Other communication strategies may therefore need
to be developed for this age group.

In addition, the study found that whichever message the
participants received, concern about environmental problems was
greater than their belief that they could do something about

Nevertheless, the study concluded that positive messages
containing opportunities and solutions are, in general, more
effective in encouraging behavioural changes which reduce the
environmental impact of energy use.

The researchers add that public trust in the information source
is also important when designing effective communication

Source: Van de Velde, L., Verbeke, W.,
Popp, M., Van Huylenbroeck, G. (2010). The importance of message
framing for providing information about sustainability and
environmental aspects of energy. Energy Policy. 38:


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