As emotions may mediate educational outcomes, a more comprehensive understanding of their effects is needed. This study showed that fear would indeed decelerate educational outcomes, as indicated by self-reported changes in climate change mitigation behavior, particularly on the change of low carbon life. Furthermore, hope did not have a significant impact on educational outcomes compared to the control, fear, and lecture-only groups. Thus, bringing emotion into EEC requires more prudential consideration.
A previous study suggested that messages with emotion improve pro-environmental behavior more than natural messages, especially negative emotions (Morris et al. 2019). Negative emotions often cause more attention or concern (Schupp et al., 2007), and thus may generate more action (Skurka et al. 2018). Consequently, science consultants advocated the use of fear and catastrophe narratives to represent the consequences of climate change (Doulton and Brown 2009; Hulme 2008). However, in this study, concern related climate change did not differ significantly among the treatments; there was no difference even with the control group, suggesting that students in the coastal cities in this study may already hold relatively high levels of concern for climate change. On the other hand, an increasing number of studies have suggested that the predominant negative information about climate change does not benefit the cultivation of mitigation actions (Hart and Feldman 2014; Morisson and Hatfield-Dodds 2011). A study in the environmental psychology field (Greitemeyer 2013) indicated that fear-framed, climate change–affirming films did not have a significant, positive impact on concern for the environment. It may be that fear does not trigger consideration, but rather apathy for the future consequences of climate change. A recent study that tested preferences for and impacts of three negative emotions (fear, sadness, and anger) in comparison to messages framed without emotion, found that people generally preferred messages framed without emotion (Bloodhart et al. 2018). Thus, an increasing recommendation found in academic research and literature is that participants prefer non-emotional messages to modified emotional messages about climate change (Bloodhart et al. 2018).
Our study has confirmed that fear has a negative impact on educational outcomes compared to the lecture-only group. Fredrickson (2001) noted that on occasions when survival is threatened, negative affect prompts action that brings immediate and direct adaptive benefits. There is also evidence that individuals with depression are more focused on the possible costs than the possible benefits of specific risks (Pietromonaco and Rook 1987; Yuen and Lee 2003). This suggests that individuals high in negative affect will have a more limited understanding of the natural environment, and the adoption of mitigation behavior is costly. This may lead individuals with higher negative emotions to avoid them and engage instead in behaviors that yield immediate, rather than long-term benefits. This might explain why fear decelerates low carbon life in mitigation behavior in this study.
On the other hand, there is a call for promoting the development of hope among youth in climate change education (Stevenson et al. 2018), as hope may enhance people’s self-efficiency (O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole 2009), thus leading to a more positive behavior change. However, hope emotion treatment did not contribute significantly to most of the psychological variables compared to the lecture-only group in this study. Notably, even the change in knowledge in the hope treatment group was lower than that of the lecture-only group. One possible reason is that hope may weaken people’s motivation and cause them to become less engaged (Hornsey and Fielding 2016). These findings are consistent with one reading of fantasy realization theory (Oettingen 2012): If people focus entirely on a desired future and do not contrast that future with a negative current reality, the effect can be counterproductive in terms of working toward that future. Another study found that “constructive hope” (being hopeful because people—individually and collectively—can reduce climate change) is a predictor of increased policy support and political engagement, whereas “false hope” (being hopeful because something external other than people will fix the problem) predicts the opposite effect (Marlon et al. 2019). The complexity of the emotion of hope reminds us that hope-filled messages about climatic change need to be balanced with active reminders of the negative current reality. Educators also need to engage students taking personal responsibility for changing behaviors through cooperation, participation, and organization of social, political, and cultural efforts.
Our results provide not only an effective educational program for adolescents’ behavior but also a theoretical model to understand the factors for changes in mitigation behavior. Hope group, lecture-only group, climate change concern, involvement, and self-efficiency were found to improve mitigation behavior directly. A prior study also found hope in youth’s direct impact on mitigation behavior (Stevenson et al. 2018). Education can potentially build climate change hope by outlining strategies to mitigate climate change (Ojala 2016). The fear group influenced mitigation behavior was fully mediated by climate change involvement, and the lecture-only group influenced mitigation behavior was partially mediated by climate change concerns and involvement. Both fear and lecture-only groups translated involvement into a greater willingness for mitigation behavior. The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) model suggests that people increase involvement by consciously processing important information in detail and depth through the central process (Lazard and Atkinson 2015). Moreover, the appraisal-tendency framework (ATF) points out that different emotions have different cognitive processes (Tiedens and Linton 2001). Fear is characterized by low levels of certainty and negative valence. People tend to process fear information more elaborately, and fear is associated with central processing. Among all three mediation models, climate change involvement proved to be a more important variable than climate change concern and self-efficiency in influencing climate change mitigation behavior.
This study demonstrates the possibility of inducing fear and hope in adolescents through emotional videos. Prior research used film, music, pictures, and smells to induce emotion, while film presentations proved to be more effective in eliciting discrete emotions than music and smell (Lench et al. 2011). This research successfully induced fear and hope in adolescents through documentary clips related to climate change, showing that adolescents’ emotions were indeed affected by mass media, such as news, the Internet, television, and films. Recently, an increasing number of educators around the world have adopted films or documentaries for use in their classrooms (Harness and Drossman 2011; Maier et al. 2014). No matter what kind of education method is utilized, emotions induced by pictures or videos exist in and out of the classroom. Therefore, educators need to be aware of the emotions that materials may evoke and their impact on education outcomes.
We note that our data are too limited to be generalized to other areas and other age groups. To increase personal involvement, people in different places need relevant stimuli (Moser, 2010). For instance, sea level rise can induce fear among teenagers residing in coastal areas, while its effectiveness on inland students is unclear. Further interventions and assessments are required for interior areas on engagement. Emotion stimuli in neutral materials should also be considered in future research. Although we carefully selected lecture materials, using science graphs instead of disaster photos, these may still arouse surprise and concern among teenagers. How to avoid the possible emotional interference of knowledge videos requires further exploration. Other objective assessment methods, such as skin conductance response (Ho and Lipp, 2014) or eye tracking (Lisa et al., 2017), can be adapted to improve the accuracy of emotion data.
Current information on climate change consists of many emotional messages (Salama and Aboukoura 2018). Many educational materials also contain striking emotional information, often invoking fear or sadness. Our study suggests that in order to achieve effective educational outcomes for climate change education, we should neither try to abuse negative emotion (as this can be counterproductive) nor to oversell positive emotion (because it can be overdone and needs to be balanced). Meanwhile, educators should work to boost students’ involvement and level of concern to improve climate-change mitigation behavior in CCE. Particular storylines and visual materials based on local areas could increase teenagers’ involvement and decrease the psychological distance of climate change (Mcdonald et al. 2015). Other educational tools to strengthen personal relevance, such as engaging in deliberative discussions and implementing school or community projects, have proven to be effective CCE strategies (Hu and Chen 2016, Monroe et al. 2017).