The Greta Thunberg Effect

Image courtesy of Ann-Marie Abunyewa.

Zooming with me from across the pond in London, Anandita Sabherwal, a PhD student at the London School of Economics, explained how she arrived at the topic of her latest publication in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology

“I was very interested in the idea of social identity and social reference, and who acts as a social reference when it comes to climate activism,” she said. 

Sabherwal had been sitting in her adviser’s office, bouncing research ideas around with him. Together, they came to the realization that they should study the effect that Greta Thunberg has had on climate activism. That idea, coupled with a collaboration with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), led to their recent paper, “The Greta Thunberg Effect: Familiarity with Greta Thunberg predicts intentions to engage in climate activism in the United States.” 

Thunberg, a teenage activist from Sweden, has inspired countless people of all ages from across the globe to both care about and act against climate change. Sabherwal and her colleagues wanted to know what makes a young, seemingly ordinary teenager so influential in convincing people to partake in collective actions like contacting government representatives, donating time and money, and attending strikes and protests—actions that help a larger group and not just themselves. 

Living, Learning, and Collaborating Across Continents

Sabherwal’s interest in studying how people react to communication about climate change is driven by the many places she’s lived in. Born and raised in India, she saw how the water shortage crisis forced women to walk ever-farther distances to get water, even driving some farmers to suicide. While studying at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, she participated in a study abroad program at Pomona College, where she was surprised by how highly politicized climate change is in the US—a characteristic that she thinks is more exaggerated here than anywhere else she’s lived. “Different political groups don’t even agree on whether climate change is worth discussing as a problem or looking for solutions for, and that blew my mind,” she said. 

Now a new PhD student at the London School of Economics, she has observed that although people in the UK want to act, there is an intention-action gap. “People want to do something, but they also don’t want to sacrifice a lot of their privileges and ways of life to get to that point,” she said.

From India to Singapore to the US to the UK, she has seen and studied first-hand how countries differ in how they are affected by and deal with climate change. “I realized that this would be an amazing thing to study because socially and psychologically, there is a lot to unpack here,” she said. “Why do different groups react so differently to the same information? How do they adapt differently based on their social status and class? What impacts do they face?”

Sabherwal and her colleagues sought to establish whether increased exposure to Thunberg was predictive of increased motivation to participate in collective action against climate change. They also wondered if collective efficacy—the idea that working as a group can bring about the accomplishment of specific goals—was behind this effect. 

The UK researchers first attempted to study the Greta Thunberg Effect in a sample of adults drawn heavily from the East and West Coasts of the US; however, their efforts were foiled by how well people already knew Thunberg. “People were already so exposed to her that when we did an experiment exposing people to Greta, it had no effect,” Sabherwal said. “Everyone in our control group knew Greta just as equally. People were much more aware of Greta and much less polarized on her than was nationally representative.” Then, an encounter with a former labmate from Sabherwal’s time at Pomona led to the opportunity to collaborate with the YPCCC. 

YPCCC conducts annual surveys on the US population and, fortunately, had data that were more representative of people’s opinions on climate change and Thunberg. YPCCC’s data solved the problem that UK researchers had run into earlier. Moreover, because of how politicized climate change is in the US, there was a wide range of opinions on climate change, which made the US data an interesting sample on which to test the researchers’ hypotheses. 

What is So Special About Thunberg?

In the study, after participants were asked how familiar they were with Thunberg, they were also asked questions measuring their belief in collective efficacy (how likely was it that a group of ordinary citizens, working together, could affect the actions of government or businesses) and questions measuring their intent to engage in collective actions (how likely the individual was to vote for a candidate, attend a rally, listen to a speech, etc.). 

As expected, they found that familiarity with Thunberg induces people’s sense of efficacy: they feel like if they work along with others, they can make an impact. This is because Thunberg has modeled both collective action—leading and supporting climate strikes, for example—and worldwide impact, such as speaking at high-profile events like United Nations conferences. 

Surprisingly, there was no difference in the Greta Thunberg Effect across age groups. The researchers had hypothesized that her impact would be more apparent in younger people, but they were glad to see that she impacted all age groups similarly. 

What also stood out about Thunberg was her appeal across the political spectrum in the US. “Generally, if a leader appeals to one political segment, they backfire with the other political segment. It’s not that the effect is just lowered. It backfires,” Sabherwal said. “But we found that Greta was also appealing to conservatives, even if to a lesser extent compared to liberals.” In light of these findings, she posits that Thunberg’s emphasis on intergenerational justice and her lack of clear alignment to a specific political party underlie her success. 

Finally, to Sabherwal, Thunberg’s humility and relatability allow her to connect with the general public. Leaders are typically elite in some way, whether it be in educational background, power, or wealth. Academic experts, government leaders, and wealthy people are examples of the types of elite leaders that abound in the arena of climate change activism. Elite leaders, however, can alienate people in the general population for the exact reasons they are conspicuous in the first place. “Sure, Jeff Bezos can donate twenty million dollars to climate change research. I can’t do that,” Sabherwal said. “But by always conveying that she’s just like us, Greta has been able to be a leader that we can look up to and say, ‘If Greta can do it, we can do it too.’”

Fighting Anxiety with Action

As a researcher whose entire day is spent focusing on climate change and seeing how reluctant people are to change their behavior, thinking about the future can be anxiety-inducing, Sabherwal admitted. But when a person like Thunberg says there is still time to change, it gives her great solace. “Greta inspired me to take care of my anxiety by taking action, by doing something about it, which I think is a message she consistently gives,” Sabherwal said. “Because unless you act, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the state of climate change right now.” 

Sabherwal believes in Thunberg’s unique power. “Most of us will change because we know that the social norm has changed. But there are a few individuals that will change the social norm, and that’s how societies change,” Sabherwal said. As her recent study reveals, the Greta Thunberg Effect is real and impactful. Hopefully, it will continue to change people’s minds, their actions, and our society for the better because—to use one of Thunberg’s trademark phrases—our house is on fire, and we’re running out of time to save it.

Extra Reading:

Sabherwal, A., Ballew, M. T., Linden, S., Gustafson, A., Goldberg, M. H., Maibach, E. W., Kotcher, J. E., Swim, J. K., Rosenthal, S. A., & Leiserowitz, A. (2021). The Greta Thunberg effect: Familiarity with Greta Thunberg predicts intentions to engage in climate activism in the United States. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 51(4), 321–333.