The Plymouth Student Scientist

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Psychology Article


In an ever-growing ‘throwaway’ society, the world’s oceans are coming under new and persistent pressures from anthropogenic activity. Marine plastic pollution is caused exclusively by human behaviours and decisions. Plastics, which accumulate in the ocean and degrade into brittle and ever-smaller fragments called ‘microplastics’, have the potential to compromise human food security and have been found in a range of items for human consumption. Microplastics also enter the marine environment directly as a result of human activity; Napper and Thompson (2016) demonstrated that as many as 700,000 microplastic fibres can enter waterways every laundry cycle. Despite this however, general microplastic awareness and concern still appears low (Rossel et al., 2015). While policies and regulation can provide an important framework for change, psychological interventions are needed to reduce negative behaviours and help protect the marine environment. Communicative appeals are one such psychological strategy that have been used for decades within health, political and environmental campaigns with varying degrees of success. Specifically, the study used immersive virtual technology, paired with the different emotionally framed messages, to have participants experience the pathways and impacts of microplastics from laundry. Using a between-subjects design with two experimental conditions (Fear and Guilt), the effect of Negative Emotional Appeals (NEA) on individual levels of Pro-Environmental Behaviour (PEB) and Environmental Concern (EC) towards microplastic pollution, was measured. Fifty-four student participants from the University of Plymouth completed the study. VR based information surrounding microplastics and the human food chain was framed with a communicative narrative to either induce fear or guilt respectively. The dependent variable of this investigation measured individual likelihood of adopting PEB’s, as well as individual levels of EC, before and after exposure to a NEA. Self-reported emotional state was also measured using the PANAS mood-scale to ensure experimental manipulation was met in each condition. Results indicated a significant increase in participants’ self-reported PEB intention and EC across several response items, after viewing the negative emotional VR appeals (across fear and guilt). There was also some evidence suggesting that guilt appeals may be more effective in increasing individual PEB intention and EC shown towards microplastic, but this finding was only approaching significance. We conclude that NEA, especially shown in a novel, immersive VR medium, has potential to increase PEB and EC related to microplastic pollution. Furthermore, some evidence supports guilt appeals being more effective than their fear counterparts. However, more research needs to be done in order to replicate these findings. Novel virtual reality technology combined with careful messaging holds great potential to help us address emerging environmental challenges that lack visibility.

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The Plymouth Student Scientist





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July 2021

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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