Study Shows Why People Get Defensive When You Are Pro Environment. How To Talk Instead

May 15, 2019

Have you ever wondered why it can be so tough to talk about issues like climate change, veganism, or going zero-waste? Being the person who brings it up can make you feel like you’re a bit of a buzzkill—after all, no one really wants to hear that we’ve only got a decade or so to get our acts together before we pass the point of no return for our environment. At the same time, we need to continue talking about these issues if we are to have a viable future. 

But if you’ve ever been the one to talk about going vegan, ditching plastic, or reducing your carbon footprint in a group setting, you know that you can usually expect your comments to be met with a little pushback. And honestly, a bit of healthy disagreement isn’t such a bad thing—until that pushback gets personal. Many of us know how it feels to be labeled as “preachy,” a “do-gooder,” or even an “extremist” for trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle.


Why do we often get these reactions? And let’s be real with ourselves for a moment—even if you live a pretty “green” lifestyle now, we all probably got a little defensive with the people who originally introduced us to these ideas. I can only speak for myself here, but it took me several years to get around to going vegan, and the first time I heard arguments in favor of veganism, I didn’t exactly warm up to the idea. I kept grasping for some excuse to stick with my usual dietary habits, and while I didn’t outright criticize vegans, I was inclined to dismiss their philosophy than admit that I should change.

It turns out that this is a typical response, because on some level, we’re psychologically wired to “shoot the messenger,” so to speak, if they’re giving us a message that we don’t really want to hear. A study entitled “Shooting the Messenger,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, describes how participants rated “bearers of bad news” as less likable, even if they were just neutral parties passing along information. The effect was even more pronounced if the news was unexpected.

When we bring up issues like climate change and sustainability, it’s easy to feel like we automatically fall into the role of the bearer of bad news. Is there really anything positive about rising sea levels, deforestation, pollution, or the loss of biodiversity on our planet? No, not really. However, we can definitely focus on the positive aspects of living “greener” lifestyles. If you can put that spin on it, it can be easier to have these conversations without being labeled as the bearer of bad news.


For example, when we talk about veganism, it’s important to explain all of the reasons it’s so beneficial to our planet and the animals, but we don’t have to make it sound like a huge sacrifice. We can emphasize how much easier it is nowadays and how many restaurants, even fast food chains, are getting in on it. We can discuss the many health benefits and point out all of the delicious substitutes and alternatives that can replace our favorite comfort foods. Looking on the bright side can make veganism seem more fun and appealing than restrictive and difficult.

Another perk to living more sustainably? Saving money. We can explain how planning your meals around whole food, vegan staples can actually lower your grocery bill, because veganism doesn’t have to mean living off pricey faux meats and cheeses. Bringing your own containers to the grocery store and buying dry goods in bulk means having some extra cash to treat yourself with or to save. In general, reducing your carbon footprint and living a lifestyle that has a lower impact on the environment is often cheaper. Riding a bike when possible means saving money on gas, car payment, and insurance while getting exercise, and using less electricity also cuts down your bill while helping the planet.

The truth is that living more sustainably can be fulfilling and comfortable. Sometimes, it’s better to focus on all of the good that can come from these changes rather than the latest scary headline. If it gets more people to listen, it’s definitely worth a shot.

Also by Jane: Scientists Are Turning Shellfish Into Bioplastic. But It Won’t Solve Our Plastic Crisis

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Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She writes about veganism, travel, and wellness, and her writing has been published on platforms like Thought Catalog, Student Universe, The Financial Diet, and Wholesome Culture. She blogs daily on Medium, and you can check out more of her work on her website.


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