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 Proenvironmental 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

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.

Study 2

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 We measure demographic information, existing attitudes and eco-related behaviours 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 we measure actual behaviour, i.e. do they keep the money or donate to Friends of the Earth, and do they request more information on sustainable behaviours (see Table below).

Table of quantitative variables

Variables Type Format Study
Trait Reactance proneness moderator Psychological reactance scale (Hong and Page, 1989) Study 2
Political affiliation moderator Left right scale (Eurobarometer, 2009) Study 2
Environmental concern/attitudes Dependent variable/mediator NEP scale (Dunlap, 2008) Study 1 and 2
Reactance mediator Reactance scale (Dillard and Shen, 2005) Study 2
Affect mediator Positive and negative emotion scale short version (Thompson, 2007). Study 2
Self-efficacy mediator Self-efficacy in climate change domain (Reser et al, 2012) Study 2
Normative factors mediator Normative factors in climate change domain (Reser et al, 2012) Study 2
Behavioural intentions Outcome variable/mediator (Hirsh and Dolderman, 2007) Study 2
Sustainable motivations Outcome variable/mediator MTES (Villacorta et al., 2003) Study 2
Changes in stated eco behaviours Outcome variable Pro-environmental behaviours (Brown and Kasser, 2005) Study 2
Actual behaviour Outcome variable Binary – tick box for more information or not Study 2
Actual behaviour Outcome variable Binary Donate fee to environmental charity or not

Our preliminary hypothesis 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.


Study 1


N = 91, 72 female, 19 male. Ages ranged from 18 to 70, with relatively equal number sof 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).

Preliminary analysis

Textual responses to negative stories

First impressions on reading textual responses to negative stories are 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


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.