The Deadline Script in Environmental Communications

Activists of every kind hope to see their cause addressed as quickly as possible, but this seems particularly true when it comes to environmentalists. Every week, news emerges about the dire consequences in store for Earth’s inhabitants if something is not done right away about species extinction, water and air pollution, and climate disruption. Combine these prognoses with the glacial pace of positive change and it is little wonder that so many messages from environmental communicators follow the “deadline script:” If we do not {PASS POLICY, CHANGE PRACTICE OR BEHAVIOR} by {DATE} then {TERRIBLE OUTCOME} will occur.

I do not suggest that this sense of urgency is misguided or incorrect. However, I am concerned that the overuse of the deadline script may be undermining the motivation of citizens to engage in the kinds of activities that environmental communicators desire.

In a now-classic study, Harvard business professor Teresa Amabile and her colleagues had undergraduates play an interesting and enjoyable game.1 Half of the participants were told to complete the activity by a specific but reasonable deadline. The others either were told to work quickly or were given no information about time constraints. After the initial round of the game, all participants had the chance to continue to play the same game or to do some other enjoyable activities. As predicted, compared to other participants, those who had been given a deadline played the original game for a significantly shorter time during this later “free choice” period; they also reported being less interested in the game.

These findings reflect a well-documented phenomenon known as the undermining of intrinsic motivation by external controls: People often feel controlled when they are given external deadlines (or rewards) for doing an activity that is otherwise experienced as inherently interesting and worth doing for its own sake. When people feel controlled in this way, their enthusiasm for the activity typically drains away. Deadlines are also known to switch people’s learning orientations from a focus on learning for its own sake to a focus on avoiding negative outcomes. Studies also document that time urgency contributes to burnout, a prime example of the loss of intrinsic motivation.

I am aware that deadlines can motivate people, particularly when the behavior is something that a person doesn’t want to do in the first place. But I also know that a reasonably large portion of people view the goal of having an ecologically sustainable world as inherently worthwhile. As such, the persistent use of a deadline script may cause individuals to feel controlled by both the deadline and the deadline-giver. This feeling is likely to sap initial enthusiasm and interest, leading to curtailed and lower-quality motivation.

Whether the use of deadline scripts is among the factors explaining how difficult it has been to effect changes proportionate to the ecological challenges we face is an empirical question that could be studied. In the meantime, environmental communicators might be more cautious with the use of deadlines to motivate change. They might also consider the research of psychology professor Mark Burgess, who studied how to help participants feel that they have more choice when deadlines are imposed. Burgess showed that higher levels of motivation and higher quality work were observed in participants who were given the opportunity to “co-opt” the deadlines so that they felt self-chosen.2 These findings are consistent with a large body of empirical literature showing that people engage in more sustained, higher quality behaviors when they view their parents, bosses, coaches, teachers, and doctors as “autonomy-supportive” (as opposed to controlling).3 The key features of autonomy support are that a person in a position of authority conveys an empathic understanding of the other individual’s perspective and provides the other person with meaningful choices to pursue.

I hope this evidence leads environmental communicators to reconsider their use of the deadline script. Ultimately, I believe we need to discover ways to convey the urgency of environmental challenges in a manner that supports people’s desire to pursue worthwhile responses, rather than in a way that causes them to feel controlled and pressured.