By Christopher McCormack, Jen Martin and Kathryn Williams
In a world where many of us are increasingly alienated from nature, could storytelling help to rekindle our connection?
Environmental films – be they documentaries, feature-length movies, or even short videos on social media – are diverse and easily accessible. Yet despite this, and their long history, the potential for such media to impact the world has received little research attention. To address this gap, we propose three key pathways through which environmental films may persuade audiences to care and act for nature.
First, we discuss the unique power of narratives to “fly under the radar”, persuading people without triggering defensiveness. Key to this is the ability for stories to “transport” viewers into other worlds, capturing their imaginations and reducing their ability to critique the information and messages they are presented with.
Next, we discuss some of the myriad ways that environmental films can interact with, and influence, a person’s identity. We believe that identification with the subjects and characters of environmental films could be a powerful means of transforming viewer attitudes. Here, we also discuss the importance of empathy and the controversial topic of anthropomorphism.
Finally, we investigate “meaningful media experiences” and explore the possibility for environmental films to take us out of ourselves in moments of self-transcendence. We look at how such moments could offer profound sensations that may lead to lasting changes in behaviour and outlook.
Through our exploration of these concepts, we offer some initial recommendations to environmental filmmakers and those working with them, for how they can use the lessons of narrative persuasion psychology to promote change in their audiences.
In illuminating our three pathways for persuasion, we shed light on a multitude of opportunities for researching and evaluating the influence of environmental films on connection with nature and pro-environmental behaviour. It is our hope that this work enables and empowers greater study of the power of films, and storytelling more broadly, to improve our relationships with the natural world.