Research on how people respond to stories

Some of the research is available on

See also the paper published in EcoPsychology  ‘Solution-Focused Stories Are More Effective Than Catastrophic Stories in Motivating Pro-environmental Intentions

and a book recently published: Baden, D.: 2020, ‘Which work best? Cautionary tales or positive role models?  ‘, In Molthan-hill, P., H. Luna and D. Baden (Eds.), Storytelling for Sustainability in Higher Education: An Educator’s Handbook (Routledge, Abingdon).

Research protocol

Two studies explore how people respond to stories that frame environmental issues in different ways.

Stimulus materials

There were four short stories, each about 400 words.  Respondents (n = 91) were asked to rate each story from 1 ‘very negative tone’ to 5 ‘very positive tone’ and whether the story had 1 ‘catastrophic focus’ to 5’solution focus’.

Blue Planet collection, .(solution focus/positive): This story describes a boy who, inspired by the TV series ‘Blue Planet’ which raises the issues of marine life being killed by plastics, takes it upon himself to collect plastic.(solution focus/positive)

‘Warrior’ (solution focus/explicit): This is seemingly about an eco-terrorist, but the twist is that she is planting a flower seed bomb, not a real bomb.

‘Too Late’ (catastrophic focus/negative): this is about an old lady trapped in her flat by a flood, who is eventually rescued, but her canary in a cage is not and drowns.

‘Sun’ (catastrophic focus/negative): This is about the end of the world due to climate change.

Study 1 (written up in Ecopsychology paper)

This is  a qualitative study. Respondents are first asked to answer a questions relating to pre-existing environmental attitudes and demographic factors. Respondents then read two stories that take a solution focus with a positive tone and two with a negative tone and catastrophic focus (order counterbalanced). Respondents are asked to rate how negative/positive they found each story. They were then asked how each story made them feel directly after reading it. Finally once respondents have read all four stories they are asked to explicitly reflect which types of story most motivated green behavioural intentions and attitudes.


N = 91, 72 female, 19 male. Ages ranged from 18 to 70, with relatively equal numbers of respondents in each age category.


The first coding stage has been completed. The analysis was initially inductive, in that the coders were open to emerging insights, and the first themes emerged directly from the data.  The main author read through the stories and made a list of themes. The focus was always on how the story made the reader feel and any links to potential action or non-action. Quotes that just described the story or evaluated it were ignored. For example, with emotional responses, the focus was on how the story made the reader feel, not how they described the story, so if they said the story made them sad, this was counted, if they just described the story as sad then it wasn’t. A second coder, blind to the hypotheses, was asked to read all textual responses and highlight any examples where responses indicated that aspects of the story had a direct link to behaviour or an express intention to act was mentioned. The coder was then asked to do the same where any response indicated that the story had led a lack of action or explicit mention of lack of motivation or avoidance following the story.

After this first coding stage certain patterns were noted, and new more inclusive codes are being developed, informed in places by established theories of behaviour, for example several themes emerged in the first analysis relating to inevitability, fatalism, helplessness, impotence etc. These can be grouped under an overarching category of low self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997)or low perceived behavioural control (Ajzen, 2002).

Textual responses to negative stories

Textual responses to negative stories indicate that sadness and worry are the most prevalent emotions listed. Many expressed more sadness at the plight of the trapped canary in a cage than the woman trapped in her flat!  Most thought the stories were believable but some thought the very negative story was unrealistic and that sense of unrealism promoted disengagement. Only three respondents expressed any intention to take action following the story.  Two specifically related the increased fear as a call to action.

I feel a bit of anxiety to be reminded of the constant threat of climate change, and inspired to pick up the slack in my life (e.g. recycle more, drive less, go back to cutting out animal products.)

Makes me feel that we should act now before it is too late.

However, many more simply noted negative emotions and that the stories may or may not be believable but without indicating their own behaviour would be affected in anyway.

Alarming, feels too extreme to convey a message.

There was evidence of avoidance – several specifically mentioned they switched off, or would rather not think about it:

This was very frightening and negative. It made me angry and I switched off

Also I turned off a bit, because I felt a flood in housing was common and realistic in the news every year now, and I’d rather not think about it.

Some seemed desensitised to such stories and another common theme was feeling powerless or a sense of fatalism:

I felt hopelessness. If indeed, the heavy rain was caused by climate change, what can we do about it. It seems the control mechanism is long term. We are probably now reaping these disasters from the last hundred years of fossil fuels being burnt, etc.

We- the little person – are powerless.

There was also evidence of a reaction against being manipulated which the positive stories did not seem to elicit:

I felt a bit manipulated by the author using fear to make me care about climate change.

There were also many examples of reactance with terms such as moralistic, propaganda, scepticisms etc. being used:

Disengaged, patronized, highly sceptical.

A bit dystopic for me. It smelt of propaganda not of what could happen.

Some respondents also blamed the victim, which is classic example of dissonance behaviour.

I felt that for her to still be in the house at that point during the flood was due to her lack of proactivity.

Textual responses to positive stories

The most prevalent responses were feeling hopeful, finding the story of the boy collecting plastic heart-warming and feeling pride in the character.

This made me feel happy! It gives a hopeful tone as it is a little boy that is teaching his parents the importance of treating the environment well too.

The ecowarrior story had a twist that most loved, although some readers switched off before they realised the twist as they didn’t like the idea that vandalism could be seen to be green. Where there was this obvious misunderstanding, the responses were ignored.

It made me want to flower bomb land and do something positive and I felt happier after reading it.

There was a much greater number of respondents actively saying that the stories inspired them to action. Typical quotes are:

I felt inspired by the way the characters behaved. made me think about what I could do.

The story is empowering and has given me motivation to make a difference.

It was inspiring and made me feel positive about small actions.

The stories made people feel happy, made them smile, made them less cynical and more hopeful, and the most common word was ‘inspiring’ followed by ‘hopeful’.

Textual responses for the comparisons of responses to negative and positive stories

Overall 58% of comments were on the theme that positive-solution focussed stories were more inspiring:

The positive stories were inspiring and made me realise everyone can make a difference.

I think the ones with solutions have more impact than the over the top scare mongering.

To break this down, the most influential factor in stories was that the key characters act as role models and this is helped if they are relatable and the reader can imagine themselves doing similar things and having similar impacts:

I liked the two positive ones best and they both showed role models who were taking action, each in a very unique way.

The second story felt inspirational. It gave me a simple option that I could take to do something positive for the environment. It made me think about spreading wildflower seeds myself.

Eleven percent of quotes related to negative stories that were inspiring:

I also liked the last story although it had a darker and sadder feel, it made me most aware of how out  actions  could possible destroy earth and ultimately us, and it also made me feel more need to take action.

On the other hand a great number (31%) of comments were about how negative stories put people off:

Not positive or inspiring just bleak and depressing sadly both of them.

The catastrophic stories I found over dramatic and difficult to believe.

The factors that put people off negative stories relate mostly to the feeling that negative stories elicited a sense of fatalism or powerlessness:

Again, the end of the world story, would just make people feel everything is hopeless. Too far into the future for people to worry about. It won’t happen now. People are more short term.

Sometimes the negative stories almost have you accepting that that is our fate.

Negative stories were more likely to be classified as manipulative or preachy:

The positive stories mostly inspired me; their messages were not as explicit, so I did not feel pressured.

I respond best when I can empathise with a character and don’t feel manipulated

A common theme was also that creating fear leads to avoidance or denial:

Scaring people only leads to switching off.

On the other hand, it is clear that fear can give rise to a different responses in different people. Of the eleven percent of quotes that related to how catastrophic stories are motivating, the most prevalent aspect was that fear of negative consequences inspires action:

The threat of extinction is one that will push you into action.

For me catastrophe focus is better as it jolted me and even though I try to be environmentally friendly it made me feel that I needed to do more imminently

Discussion of qualitative data

The qualitative results indicate that positive stories inspire greater action and intentions to change behaviour and more positive emotions for most people. The textual responses provide preliminary support for our view that, although some are more motivated by fear of catastrophic events to take action, there are a greater number who respond to fear-arousing messages by switching off. In contrast, showing easily relatable positive role models engaging in pro-environmental behaviours that are easily imitable appeared to be the most motivating kind of story. Positive stories were less likely to elicit a reactive response, such as reactance against feelings of being manipulated or preached at. Positive stories also did not appear to trigger avoidant responses. When the quantitative study is complete, this will allow a greater analysis of how potential moderators such as pre-existing green values, trait reactance and trait avoidance may affect how people respond to negatively and positively framed stories.

Study 2 (in progress)

This is a quantitative study between-subjects study, whereby respondents are exposed to just the negative stories with a catastrophic focus or just the positive stories with a solution focus Demographic information, existing attitudes and eco-related behaviours are measured beforehand.  Afterwards participants complete a survey with dependent variables such as attitudes, behavioural intentions relating to eco-related behaviours and changes in motivation to adopt sustainable practices, and mediators such as self-efficacy and reactance. Finally actual behaviour is measured, i.e. do they keep the money or donate to Friends of the Earth, and do they request more information on sustainable behaviours.

Stage 1

What are the characteristics of those who adopt green behaviours/values?

It was of interest to find out how to reach those who do not already hold green values, as these people can be the hardest to reach. The hypothesis was that those who do not already hold green values or adopt green behaviours may do so because they are avoidant i.e. they avoid information about climate change, possibly due to avoidance of negative emotions such as fear or guilt.

A personality trait of interest was trait reactance as, based on the qualitative data, it was hypothesised that those who switch off from conventional climate change communications do so because they react against being told what to do or against messages that seem to manipulate them via fear or guilt.

We were also interested in whether there was any relationship between political affiliation and green values/behaviours.

There are several ways to measure ‘greenness’ and it wasn’t obvious which to choose, so in three measures were adopted and compared. These measures were used in both Study 1 and study 2 so have a higher sample size. Results are in the table below.

Sample size – 325. The sample were recruited via Facebook advert offering £10 voucher to take part. The first 30 responses showed that they all scored highly on all measures of greenness. As the aim was to find out how to motivate those who weren’t already green, targeted sampling was used to try to obtain samples that were less likely to be green based on their interests e.g. shopping, car-racing. Despite this, most scored highly on measures of greenness.

Measure of greenness Results
NEP  (Dunlap, 2008) 6 item scale of environmental attitudes


Mean = 4.22 out of a 5 point scale.

Not good measure as almost all green and poor alpha of .59. also had lowest correlation with other green measures.

1 item: ‘Too much fuss is made about global warming Dickinson et al (2013)  (1 agree – 4 disagree)  Mean = 3.44  so not good measure as almost all green, but had highest correlation with other green measures
Adapted one item from Nolan (2010) “How motivated are you to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices e.g. reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce waste, reduce energy use etc.?”. (1-7 high = green). Mean =  5.36 so slightly better measure, and medium correlation with other green measures
Combined green add 3 green measures together Because of the shortcomings of the other green measures, a composite variable was created combining the three measures above: Alpha = .80.


Correlations btw green measures

  NPEav FUSSGW sustmotivation
NPEav Pearson Correlation 1 .432** .360**
Sig. (2-tailed)   .000 .000
N 260 260 259
FUSSGW Pearson Correlation .432** 1 .492**
Sig. (2-tailed) .000   .000
N 260 260 259
sustmotivation Pearson Correlation .360** .492** 1
Sig. (2-tailed) .000 .000  
N 259 259 259

Potential moderators (sample size n=260)

Trait reactance proneness (Hong and Page, 1989) 11 items  1-5 (5 =reactant) Mean = 3.15 (SD = .58) Alpha = .774


Political affiliation Left right scale (Eurobarometer, 2009) 1=left, 4 = right Mean = 2.07
Avoidance  Yang & Kahlor (2012) 1-6 high = avoidant Mean = 1.91  Alpha = .936


Correlation between all green and trait measures

A profile is developing of the kinds of traits that are associated with scoring relatively low on measures of pro-environmental behaviours. Those who score lowest on measures of greenness tend to be highly avoidant (strong correlation); right wing (medium correlation) and reactive (weak correlation).

Less avoidant = green (all green, r = -.656, NPE r=-.461, Fuss r= -.508, sustmot r= -.463, p<.001).

Right Wing = less green (allgreen r = -310, NPE r= -.253, Fuss r= -.375, sustmot r= -.255, p<.001).

Smaller effect of greenness with less Trait Reactance, (all green r = -.134, p .04, sust mot r = .174, p = .008, fuss GW and NPE n.s. in same direction

Right Wing strongly associated with Avoidance (r=.230, p .001).

Trait reactance also associated with Avoidance (r = .171, p = .009)

No relationship between right wing and trait reactance (r=.012)

Our preliminary hypothesis based on the qualitative data is that, whereas all types of story will increase knowledge and awareness of sustainable practices, stories which have a catastrophic focus will lead to reactance due to avoidance and fear in some, and those with an explicit focus may lead to reactance against perceived psychological manipulation, and those who report such reactance will also score less highly on pro-environmental attitudes, intentions and behaviours. On the other hand, stories which take a positive/solution focus and/or have sustainable practices presented in the background rather than as the focus of the story will lead to higher self-efficacy (in the context of sustainability), and are less likely to lead to reactance, and thus more likely to result in higher pro-environmental attitudes, intentions and behaviours for those who are prone to reactance.

Stage 2: intervention.

Respondents either read both stories in the catastrophic-focus condition or both studies in the solution-focus condition. Then they answered a series of questions.

Stage 3. Dependent variables

Positive and negative emotions (PANAS)

Unsurprisingly, there were significant difference in PANAS scores between condition with those in the catastrophic-focus condition scoring higher on negative emotions and lower on positive emotions than those in the solution-focus condition.

Self-efficacy in climate change domain (Reser et al, 2012)

Self-Efficacy in the climate change domain was significantly higher in the solution-focused condition than the catastrophic condition. The effect size and significance increased if the composite measure if greenness and/or avoidance was included as a covariate in an ANCOVA. Those who are most avoidant show the greatest increase in self-efficacy as a result of solution focussed stories.

Self-efficacy was also inversely correlated with PANAS (emotion) but this correlation was driven more by positive emotions rather than negative emotions. In other words, solution focussed stories increased self-efficacy via positive emotions.

Self-efficacy ave: Total panaspos r=.419: determined r=.826, inspired r= .798, active r= .783 alert r=.773, attentive r=.754.  Self-efficacy ave negative panas  n.s.

Outcome variables

Respondents were asked how likely they were to seek more information on how to reduce their carbon footprint and how likely they were to donate to environmental charities. Right at the end of the survey we created ways to actually measures actions rather than intentions. Before finishing they could tick a box to request information on how to cut their carbon footprint (yes/no) or offered a chance to donate their £10 to an environmental charity (yes/no). Results showed no significant differences between conditions


There were no significant differences between conditions in terms of the questions: ‘‘How likely are you to take action to find out more about how to be environmentally friendly?’ and ‘How likely are you to support environmental charities?’

Green actions

How likely are you to change your current lifestyle in the following ways to reduce your carbon footprint? If any don’t apply then please leave blank. N=179 – a list of 20 green practices were provided. The results did not differ by condition but also results from this were hard to interpret because in the textual responses at the end, there were indications that many ticked ‘probably not’ because they were already behaving in maximally green ways. This needs to be redone with greater clarity to avoid this skewing results.

Outcome variables (actions)

There were four opportunities provided to engage in actual behaviour, as few took these up we created a composite variable – average opportunities taken to engage in green behaviours but there was no significant difference between catastrophic focus  – this is probably because there were so few instances.

Correlation between intention and action

Interestingly there is only a weak correlation between those who say they will give to an environmental charity with those who ticked the box to donate their fee to an environmental charity r = .161 and a moderate correlation between those who say they will seek more information with those who ticked the box to request more information r = .327.


There were no significant differences on green intentions or actions as a result of whether respondents were exposed to stories with a catastrophic focus or solution focus and only weak correlations between stated intentions and actual behaviour. Self-efficacy is an established mediator of intentions and behaviour and this was higher in the solution focused condition than the catastrophic focus condition, especially for those who scored high on avoidance. Referring back to the original hypothesis, it appears that avoidance is a key variable that may explain lack of interest in green issues/behaviours, and that soution focused stories are more likely to result in greater feelings of self-efficacy in the environmental domain as they reduce the feelinsg of fear/guilt that may motivate the avoidant response. Trait reactance did not play a key role in these relationships.