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This item was posted on November 20, 2010, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Fear Appeals.
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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.

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This thing has 7 Comments

  1. Posted November 20, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Putting on my political science hat, I have to note that fear appeals often work very well, very well indeed, in the political sphere. Consider issues such as terrorism, illegal aliens, crime, etc. Mencken’s cynical (and deliberately hyperbolic) observation still makes a lot of sense: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

    We should not, of course, condone irresponsible fear mongering and yellow journalism. Nevertheless, there is a very long history of such things… because they work. And this seriously calls into question the ideas of the Berkeley social psychologist that appeals to fear “threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair” – so that such appeals lead to a response of disbelief. It just ain’t so simple, in general.

  2. Posted November 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Charles: The social science literature shows that fear appeals do seem to be more effective with certain issues, but not so much with climate change. Lisa Dilling and Susanne Moser discuss this in their excellent book, so I suggest you check it out. (Link above.) Andy Revkin also wrote about this same subject in greater detail at DotEarth yesterday, so I’d recommend that you read that as well. (It has some comments from experts on this subject.)

    You might also consider the concept of “climate porn”: http://www.ippr.org.uk/pressreleases/?id=2240

    Lastly, 30 years of unrelenting fear appeals on climate change have gotten us, well, where? I would argue pretty much nowhere. If ever there was a prima facie case that fear appeals on climate change don’t work, this is it. (Or in Albert Einstein’s words: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results…)

  3. spyder
    Posted November 21, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Reading Thomas Frank’s new essay in Harper’s (sorry, sub required), i am thinking that the success of content media corporations needs to begin to be acknowledged for its play in all of this. Demand Media and Associated Corner are two of the biggest players, literally manufacturing content and news based on marketing and focus group studies. Sadly, the climate science world is not a very big player at all, so i am not sure how any appeals to positive reasonable thinking, or otherwise, will make a substantive difference.

  4. Posted November 21, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Tom, I’ve read the Revkin article and the Feinberg/Willer paper. Thanks for the references. However, I don’t find them very persuasive. Apologies in advance for the length of this note.

    The Feinberg/Willer paper is based on the social psychology circle of ideas known as “Just World Theory” (JWT) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_world_theory. Curiously, the book of the “founder” of JWT, Melvin Lerner, is entitled The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Unfortunately, I don’t have ready access to that volume, but I note that there is no question mark in the title, so I don’t know whether Lerner himself actually regarded the underlying “just world” belief as a delusion.

    Although the underlying belief that JWT deals with seems philosophically controversial (at best), JWT itself simply asserts that “many people” have this belief, and that certain consequences follow. One thing that concerns me is whether substantial evidence has been developed that quantifies how many people hold the underlying belief in the world’s justness. At most it seems like just one dimension in a multidimensional space of belief systems.

    It’s clear enough that many people have religious beliefs that are incompatible with the idea that a “just” deity would allow the kind of climate developments that science predicts, and so such people deny the science. But that’s a pretty broad feature of religion in general – it denies many kinds of science that clash with religion. So what’s science supposed to do – give up and say, “Oops. we aren’t really predicting what the evidence strongly indicates”?

    The Feinberg/Willer paper argues that certain sorts of positive messages increase subjects’ acceptance of the ideas (1) that the scientific evidence for global warming is good and (2) that science can find solutions to the problem. In other words, these messages are pro-science in a feel-good, non-threatening way. So of course it’s not too surprising that the subjects who heard these messages exhibited greater acceptance of scientific conclusions. This is basic marketing theory.

    One problem is that the part of the message that says science can find a “solution” to the problem is likely to be false. It’s probable that there is no largely scientific solution. Mitigation of climate change is probably much more of an economic and political issue, because significant behavioral change and economic adjustment are likely to be necessary. Of course, this assertion is also open to debate.

    I think that the best science has actually discovered a lot that suggests the threat of climate change is even more dire than some cautious observers assume. There is, for example, this: http://climateprogress.org/2010/11/15/year-in-climate-science-climategate/

    You wrote, “30 years of unrelenting fear appeals on climate change have gotten us, well, where? I would argue pretty much nowhere. If ever there was a prima facie case that fear appeals on climate change don’t work, this is it.”

    I’m afraid that by the very same sort of argument, 30 years of attempts to patiently and rationally educate the public on the science of climate change have also failed.

    The real problem is that what’s actually true is that different approaches work best with different types of people, depending on their undelying personality types and value systems. For example see http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2010/09/skeptics-discount-science-by-casting-doubts-on-scientist-expertise.ars or the paper it discusses –

    One of the individuals that Revkin quotes in his article, Dan Kahan at Yale, states the problem quite well: “I think it [Feinberg/Willer] is good research, and maybe captures something that is going on in the real world debate. But it doesn’t capture what’s most important: the source of individual differences. People disagree about climate change; it is one of a cluster of science & policy issues that polarize citizens along cultural/political lines. “Just world” theory posits a general psychological mechanism that affects everyone. Necessarily, then, it can’t explain why one and the same set of informational influences (e.g., stories reporting “scientific consensus” on climate change) provoke different reactions in identifiable subcommunities. The theory that we need is one that identifies what the identifying characteristics of these communities are and how they are implicated in cognition of risk. No theory that focuses of [sic] generic or population-wide aspects of the psychology of risk perception (so-called “main effects”) can do that.”

    In other words, a lot more needs to be done to steer public attitudes in the right direction. It is not a matter of simply finding the most comforting feel-good way to “frame” the issue, if that just entails obscuring the hard scientific facts. That is a vain hope.

    I don’t have a solution of the problem, but I think a solution should include a careful evidence-based appraisal of the kinds of messages that work best with different groups, combined with a plan for how to deliver the messages through different channels appropriate for different groups.

    It’s a lot like any other tough political campaign. Sometimes “negative” campaigning works very well, sometimes it doesn’t.

    I can see what’s going on here. There are obviously efforts being made by a broad range of social scientists, communication experts, and journalists to shape an effective messaging strategy. For example: ClimateEngage.org. This is probably good. What is not clear is whether the people most involved will be able to identify a near-optimal strategy.

    Just to name names, Matthew Nisbet (whom Revkin also quotes) is one with whom I find a lot to disagree – such as the whole “post-partisan” shtick. The elephant in the room is that most opponents of the necessity of acting on climate change – to say nothing of those who deny it even exists and/or is anthropogenic – have no intentions of operating in a reasonable and responsible “post-partisan” fashion.

  5. L. Carey
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Joe Romm has posted the actual content of the “make believe” article used by the researchers, and both the “hopeful” and the “dire” endings. These are very much worth a look, as the “hopeful” ending is in fact what sites such as WUWT characterize as “alarmism” – that the AGW threat is real and dire, but that aggressive mitigation and adaptation using existing technology undertaken now can avoid the gravest threats. The “dire” ending is essentially that science has no clue how to even begin to address the threat and catastrophe is all we have to look forward to — (and just who on earth uses that message, anyway?)

  6. Posted November 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    The actual wordings used in the (small scale) study are very important. The “hopeful” message doesn’t pull punches about the scale of the threat or retreat from showing what is at stake. It is dismal hopelessness that paralyses action, not fear per se.

  7. Steve Bloom
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    A point on this I haven’t seen made is that the “hopeful” message is more consistent with what people get from the general media than the “hopeless” one), which might explain the tendency to discount the latter. Note that all this requires is an absence of “hopeless” messaging in the sense of “If it’s really this bad why haven’t we heard more about it?”; similarly, if indeed people believe in a just world, they would not want to think that their government is failing to do much about such a dire problem.

    Somewhat analogously, in science circles it’s considered good practice to withhold judgement on a new paper with outlier results until they can be confirmed or rejected.

    That said, and as Michael Tobis has explained in detail, climate scientists broadly do think things are a lot worse than is reflected in the media, so can we blame the latter for the public’s unwillingness to accept reality?

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