Update 11/20/10: My senior moments are coming more frequently these days, and so I have to admit that I completely forgot Andy Revkin’s post yesterday on the very same study I mention below. This is really weird, since I just had the pleasure of hanging out with Andy here in Boulder AND he spoke on this very issue in his talk last night at the University of Colorado. Oh well. Perhaps what I’m losing in memory I’m gaining in wisdom? But in all seriousness, please see Revkin’s excellent post on the subject of fear appeals by clicking here.
My original post begins here:
The first headline is from a story in Fog City Journal. There’s nothing much new in it, and it simply repeats the same arguments we’ve been hearing for quite some time. As the headline implies, it’s all about how the forces of evil climate denial are winning, and the results, according to the overwhelming majority of scientists, will be dire.
The second headline is actually the title of a new paper to be published in January in the journal Psychological Science. Click here for a pre-print of the paper.
“Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair,” says Robb Willer, a University of California, Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study, quoted in a press release. “As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming.”
See the paper itself for details. Suffice it to say that it is the latest in a series of studies that have reached the same conclusion: fear appeals are highly problematic. As Lisa Dilling, my colleague here at the University of Colorado, and her co-author Susanne C. Moser of NCAR, write in their book, “Creating a Climate for Change”:
Numerous studies . . . caution us about using fear appeals. Empirical studies show, for example, that fear may change attitudes and verbal expressions of concern but not necessarily increase active engagement or behavior change . . .”
Appeals to guilt are similarly problematic, according to Dilling and Moser.
So what does work? In Willer’s study, subjects who read messages emphasizing solutions over fear were more likely to believe in the reality of global warming, as well as the potential for scientific and technological innovations to reduce carbon emissions.
Writing about guilt and fear appeals, Dilling and Moser reached a similar conclusion:
. . . given the highly complex and uncertain outcomes of such appeals and the limited ability to control people’s emotional responses to information, using positive motivations and forms of communication may prove more successful in engaging social actors.
In other words, cut out the Armageddon references and help show people that there is a path that leads toward a solution.