Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

How Thinking about our Legacy Can Save the World

By Alex Shaw, Haotian Zhou


Many of us enjoy action movies in which the superhero rescues humanity by stopping some impending disaster from destroying our world. Trying to save the world is surely one of the noblest purposes to which one can commit oneself. Saving the world may seem like something only superheroes can do, but this is not necessarily the case. While many of us cannot jump over tall buildings in a single bound, we too are capable of doing our part to save the world, by nipping the impending catastrophe climate change would invariably lead to in the bud. However, many of us fail to do our part to battle the negative effects of climate change because the threat that it poses seems so distant.

Is there some way to rally people to combat these deleterious effects of climate change? Lisa Zaval, Ezra Markowitz, and Elke Weber from Columbia University have a recent study that demonstrates that the answer to this question might be in the future. That is, people might be much more likely to help the environment today if they think about how their life will be judged and remembered by future generations. These authors hypothesized that people who care more about how they will be thought of by future generations will be more likely to help the environment today because they would be more concerned about having a positive legacy.

Image ©: David Schiersner 2014

In their first study they explored this hypothesis by examining if people who are more focused on their legacy are also more likely to hold proenvironmental beliefs and to be more likely to donate to environmental causes. In order to assess people’s focus on their legacy the authors asked questions about how much they cared about their legacy (e.g., “It is important for me to leave a positive mark on society” and “I care about what future generations think of me.”). They then assessed people's attitudes toward policies and behaviors that would mitigate the damages of climate change. They also gave participants the opportunity to donate part of a bonus they received for completing the study to a proenvironmental charity. The authors found that those who reported a high amount of concern with their legacy were much more likely to report proenvironmental attitudes and were more likely to donate their own money to a proenvironmental charity. Of course, these behaviors might not necessarily stem from the concern for one’s own legacy (e.g. maybe caring about the environment makes you more likely to focus on your legacy), so in their second study the authors manipulated people’s focus on their legacy. To do this, one group of participants were asked to write about what they want to be remembered for by future generations and another group did not write anything. Participants then filled out a similar survey that assayed their environmental attitudes and willingness to donate to an environmental charity. The authors found, as they predicted, that those who wrote about their legacy were more likely to endorse behaviors that would mitigate the damages of climate change and to donate to a proenvironmental charity.

These results reveal that reflecting on our legacy appears to be one powerful way to inspire us to pursue more purposeful behaviors.  We have previously covered New Paths to Purpose research that suggests that thinking about now as the future can powerfully motivate more purposeful behavior. These research programs have somewhat similar messages. It can be easy to get lazy or distracted when pursuing goals whose benefits only crystalize in the future. However, the benefits will forever be beyond your reach if you don’t take that proverbial first step. Whether your goal is saving the world or achieving a goal that only matters to yourself, the important thing to remember is that it is impossible to change the future if you never act in the now. So go do something purposeful today, the future will thank you for it. 


Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Haotian Zhou is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

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