Motivating action on climate change: a Q&A with Anandita Sabherwal

Social influences on collective climate action

Anandita Sabherwal is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science 

My lived experiences in India, Singapore and the UK have underscored how different societies experience the problem of climate change differently.
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Anandita Sabherwal

What are you currently researching?

In a nutshell, I investigate how we can motivate collective and consistent action on climate change. My PhD focusses on three barriers that may stall groups from making progress on shared goals: social loafing, moral licensing, and an unhelpful organisational culture.

Social loafing is our tendency to reduce our effort when we act in groups because we think that our individual effort isn’t noticeable to others, and that it cannot make a difference.

Moral licensing is our tendency to allow ourselves to do environmentally damaging things if we have already done something pro-environmental (e.g., the feeling that, I already do enough for the environment by say, walking to work every day, so I am in some way entitled to do something environmentally damaging in my own self-interest e.g., eat meat).

And organisational culture refers to the everyday norms and practices of our organisations that may make it difficult (or easy) to act sustainably.

All these are motivational barriers – they demotivate us from acting on this massive challenge which plagues, and therefore should have united, the whole world. I see my work as understanding and thwarting these barriers. 

Why did you choose this area of study?

My lived experiences in India, Singapore and the UK have underscored how different societies experience the problem of climate change differently.

In India, I grew-up on stories of farmer suicides, loss of bio-diversity due to development, and displacement of communities due to natural disasters. Climate change is felt viscerally there.

Contrastingly, in the west, until recently, climate change seemed a psychologically distant phenomenon – affecting others (be it people in other countries, or people of the future) more so than it affects us.

On an intellectual level, the inaction on climate change seemed to go against our evolutionary instinct of survival. Therefore, this conundrum of inaction towards a global problem with disproportionate impacts fascinated me. More importantly, on a pragmatic level, I find it my moral imperative to use the tools that are at my disposal to mobilise action on the issue. 

How will your research improve or have a wider impact on society? 

My work can be adapted into interventions to motivate climate action in various settings. For example, policymakers and environmental campaigns are often fearful of moral licensing – they worry that promoting a certain pro-environmental action (e.g., incentivising public vs private transport) can backfire onto other environmental actions (e.g., people might think they have done their part by taking public transport and may then feel like they are “off-the-hook” to say, indulge in fast fashion or eat meat).

However, if my research finds that moral licensing can be prevented by making people feel that their environmental actions are part of their identity, then policy makers can adopt this intervention when promoting environmental initiatives (e.g., when incentivising public transport, highlight that those who take public transportation are not just doing this by default, but are environmentalists).

Similarly, my work on organisational culture can be used to assess whether an organisation is simply claiming to care about sustainability (i.e., greenwashing) or truly fostering a pro-environmental culture which allows its employees to act sustainably. 

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

I get really excited when my work reaches people beyond academia – people who are on the ground making change happen. I was recently contacted by environmental activists who had read my paper and wanted to understand how they could use insights from my work to mobilise action from various social groups.

Another highlight has been extending my research beyond western populations. For my moral licensing project, I am leading a collaboration of 100 labs across 45 countries. By pooling our resources and expertise, we will be able to test how to tackle the problem of moral licensing across various cultural contexts. 

What has been your biggest challenge so far? 

When it comes to climate change, it is such a complex issue that there are tons of problems that need to be solved– it has been a challenge to limit myself to just a few.

What advice would you give to prospective students on the most effective way to approach research and keep stress levels down? 

Pick a research topic that intrinsically interests you because you will inevitably face challenges in your PhD journey. Your interest in your topic will help you stay afloat. And I can’t stress this enough – REACH OUT – to your supervisor, colleagues in your department, colleagues in the wider research community. Don’t hesitate to voice your curiosities, questions, concerns or challenges. Research doesn’t have to be a solitary experience. 

In a few words, what is the best thing about studying at LSE?

The diverse and supportive PBS community! We have incredibly supportive PSS staff, a set of inquisitive and hardworking undergraduate and master’s students, an extremely warm and inspiring PhD cohort and a brilliant yet humble faculty. I got very lucky with LSE!