BBC's hugely successful Planet Earth series has attracted upwards of a billion viewers. An estimated 33 million households have watched Netflix's Our Planet. These nature-based documentary programs have traditionally focused on positive, uplifting content: breathtaking clips of coral reefs teeming with life, majestic forest landscapes, or the mesmerizing sight of wildlife migration. 

But these awe-inspiring natural wonders are in danger. Marine life is threatened by rising sea levels and ocean acidification from greenhouse gas emissions. Humans have razed millions of miles of Earth's forests to clear space for agriculture and wood-based products.  Increasingly, nature programs are starting to acknowledge these stark realities, often right after they portray the splendors of our planet. This seems like a trend in the right direction. After all, nature programs could mislead audiences if they fail to fully convey the destructive impacts that human activities have had on the environment. So, the strategy seems to make sense: first inspire wonder, then move people to protect that source of awe.

Both of these types of content can be influential on their own. For example, our own research has shown that awe-inspiring nature scenes make people want to practice more sustainable behavior and support pro-environmental policies. Separate research suggests negative messages focusing on environmental degradation can be similarly persuasive.

How do audiences respond to messages that combine positive content about Earth's wonders immediately before negative content about the tragic impacts of human actions on the planet—exactly the kind of back-to-back messaging you might encounter while watching nature programs? We call these "sequenced" messages because they inspire different emotional experiences that unfold in a particular order.

Testing the Effects of Messages in Sequence

To understand how persuasive these sequenced messages are, we asked nearly 1,000 U.S. adults to watch one of several videos and give their reactions. The videos used real clips from nature programs with relevant facts and emotionally appropriate background music. Some participants watched a video about coral reefs, and others watched one about forests.

For some participants, the video was emotionally "static," meaning it was either exclusively positive in tone, focusing on nature's beauty, or exclusively in negative tone, focusing on environmental degradation and human impacts. Other participants watched an emotionally sequenced video, which featured the positive and negative content back-to-back within the same video. A final "control" group of participants watched a video about an unrelated topic—for example, facts about dollar bills—which was unrelated to environmental issues and emotionally neutral.

Mixing Wonder with Tragedy Affects Emotions, But Not Opinions

Whether the video was about coral reefs or forests, the juxtaposition of positive and negative content in the sequenced videos evoked feelings of "poignancy." Poignancy is the mixed emotion of "bittersweet" that you feel when facing a meaningful ending—for example, on the day you graduate high school or the last time you visit your favorite restaurant before it closes for good. Our findings demonstrate that people can feel poignancy not only about events that personally involve them; they can also feel poignancy when consuming emotionally sequenced media content that invites them to contemplate, for instance, that Earth's extraordinary coral reefs may not be around much longer.

The more participants felt poignancy while watching the video, the more likely they were to say they would share it with others. This suggests there may be some benefit to environmental messages that make you feel joyful and sad at the same time.

Even though the sequenced messages evoked greater poignancy than the static messages, they were no more effective at increasing support for pro-environmental policies. We found that all of the environmental messages made people more supportive of environmental policies than the control message did. Sequenced messages may trigger unintended psychological responses, such as increasing defensiveness toward sequenced messages because they seem more manipulative.

In summary, nature messages that flow between positive and negative content can make you feel poignant about the planet. Yet these sequenced messages may not necessarily be more effective than emotionally static messages in changing your mind or behavior. Our findings suggest that exposure to any kind of pro-nature content—even watching just the uplifting parts of Our Great National Parks on your couch—could help spark conversations about the environment.

For Further Reading

Skurka, C., Kim, N., Eng, N., & Oliver, M. B. (2023). Awesome, awful: Emotional flow in environmental messaging. Media Psychology, 1–26.

Arendt, F., & Matthes, J. (2016). Nature documentaries, connectedness to nature, and pro-environmental behavior. Environmental Communication, 10(4), 453–472.

Oliver, M. B., & Woolley, J. K. (2011). Tragic and poignant entertainment: The gratifications of meaningfulness. In K. Döveling, C. von Scheve, & E. Konijn (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Emotions and Mass Media (pp. 134–147). Routledge.

Chris Skurka is an Assistant Professor at Penn State University. He studies the psychological effects of media messages about environmental and health issues.

Nahyun Kim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Drexel University. Her research centers on investigating how communication can contribute to societal well-being, particularly in the fields of strategic corporate communication and environmental communication.

Nicholas Eng is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia. He studies the interplay between message features and audience factors in shaping psychological and behavioral responses to messages about health and the environment.