Sustainability, emotions and intelligent machines

The project is a collaboration between Stockholm University, Karolinska Institutet and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, and focuses on three key dimensions of the interplay between technology, emotions and sustainable development.

The first concerns individual mechanisms, i.e. whether and how emotionally charged news about climate and sustainability impacts the emotional world of individuals.

The second addresses diffusion effects, i.e. whether and in what way highly emotionally charged information on climate and sustainability is spread via digital platforms, and whether that diffusion is enhanced by platform design.

Finally, the project is studying effects, i.e. whether and how the behavior of individuals is influenced by whether or not they have been exposed to emotionally charged information on climate and sustainability. 

Emotions are a central part of our lives. Research has shown that our emotional world impacts virtually all aspects of our daily lives – the issues we pay attention to, the views we have on different issues, and how we behave in various situations. Emotions also relate to the climate question and sustainability in a number of ways.

As previous research has shown, news and other information that is highly emotionally charged is more often shared on social media, and may sometimes lead to extensive emotional contagion, affecting our collective opinions and behaviors. People who feel strong empathy with others tend to care more about the climate issue, and also live greener lives.

Emotions also play a major part in understanding why some issues, such as climate, become highly polarized, blocking productive dialogue and collective decision making.

So individual and mutual emotions seem to play a key role in people’s perceptions and behaviors. This dimension has attracted great interest among researchers within the social sciences engaged in climate and sustainability research.

But one important issue that has received much less attention is whether diffusion of emotionally charged information on climate and other sustainability crises is impacted by digital platforms and their integrated algorithms, such as ranking algorithms and search engines. In just a short time these platforms and systems have changed how people communicate and interact via extensive digital networks, some of which can engage millions of people.

Research has shown that some of these platforms and systems have been deliberately designed to collect and exploit information about people’s emotional state. Some of these algorithms (e.g. automated users of social media – “social bots”) are even designed to exploit cognitive weaknesses created by highly emotional states in order to create polarization. Whether these effects can also be found in discussions on climate and other sustainability crises such as loss of biodiversity is not yet known.

There is therefore a growing need to understand the interplay between emotions, digital platforms and matters of climate and sustainability.

“Sustainability, Emotions and Intelligent Machines: the mechanisms, diffusion and effects of technology-mediated emotions on sustainability”

Principal investigator:
Docent Victor Galaz 

Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Therese Lindahl

Karolinska Institutet
Andreas Olsson

Stockholm University
Stefan Daume

Stockholm University

SEK 5.6 million