Pulling on Heartstrings: Three Studies of the Effectiveness of Emotionally Framed Communication to Encourage Workplace Pro-Environmental Behavior

Published March 2022 by Professor Neal Ashkanasy 

Sally V. Russell & Neal M. Ashkanasy (2021), “Pulling on Heartstrings: Three Studies of the Effectiveness of Emotionally Framed Communication to Encourage Workplace Pro-Environmental Behavior.” Sustainability https://doi.org/10.3390/su131810161

Businesses and organisations are well placed to help reverse the trend in rising carbon emissions. Improving a company’s environmental performance requires encouraging pro-environmental behaviours of their employees. However, it is not fully understood how best to motivate people to engage in these behaviours. While there is evidence of the potential for emotionally framed messaging for promoting pro-environmental behaviours, research in this area is limited. This research aimed to address this gap by examining the effect of emotionally framed messages on pro-environmental behaviours in three quasi-experimental studies.

“The role of emotion in understanding workplace pro-environmental behaviour is lacking —despite growing evidence that climate change is an emotional topic for employees and that emotions are an important driver of workplace pro-environmental behaviour.”

Key findings

  • The findings highlight that the emotional framing of climate change messaging affects workplace pro-environmental behaviour.
  • Messaging that elicited negative emotions was associated with individual changes in behaviour; however, not all negative emotions have the same impact on behaviour.
  • While anger and fear increased pro-environmental behaviours, sadness tended to lead to a decrease in pro-environmental behaviour. Compared with a neutral framing, messages that evoke sadness saw lower recycling behaviour and fewer requests for pro-environmental information.
  • Although negative emotions were associated with changes in behaviour, positively framed messages had no significant impact on behaviour, indicating that in this context, positive emotions may not be a useful framing for climate change messaging.  

“Taken together, the results across both positive and negative conditions lend support to the negativity effect, whereby the effect of negative stimuli is greater than that of positive stimuli.”


Businesses working to encourage pro-environmental behaviour within and outside their organisation can look to this research to understand the types of emotional frames which may motivate collective efforts towards sustainability. However, there is a need for caution in using emotional frames as there is not enough research on how individuals may be affected by different message types. If emotional messaging is to be used, it is important that comprehensive testing of these messages is undertaken to avoid unintended negative impacts. Messaging that aims to evoke feelings of anger or fear may inadvertently evoke sadness. As sadness was associated with leading to inaction, untested messaging targeted at negative emotions has the risk of reducing rather than increasing pro-environmental behaviour.

“The results from our studies demonstrate that emotion in communication has a direct causal effect on pro-environmental behaviour, thus confirming the importance of emotion in understanding this behaviour. Furthermore, the differences in the participants’ pro-environmental behaviour between the anger, fear and sadness condition groups underscores the importance of studying discrete emotions, rather than studying emotions aggregated into positive and negative valence.”

Contact Professor Neal Ashkanasy to learn more about the research.

Learn more about the Business Sustainability Initiative.