New psychological research finds that dire messages about the threat of global warming will strengthen people’s acceptance of climate science when combined with solutions, which is the approach taken by leading climate activists. For some people, their response to dire messages is strongly dependent on whether hope is offered. The research, by University of California Berkeley psychologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, investigated the application of “just world belief” theory to how people interpret the threat of global warming. Unfortunately, the press release announcing the study — to be published next year in Psychological Science — gave a confusing portrayal of the study’s results, leading some prominent climate journalists to draw incorrect conclusions from their research.
Just-world-belief theory, first developed by Melvin Lerner in 1965, studies the concept that “people need to believe in a just world” — i.e. “good things happen to good people” — “thus, evidence that the world is not just is threatening, and people have a number of strategies for reducing such threats.” Experimental research has found since then that there are systematic ways of identifying the level of someone’s belief in a just world (or at least that is how the results of a standard questionnaire are interpreted), and those results are strongly correlated with their response to various situations that involve injustice and justice — from how victims are perceived to how people cope with traumatic events.
Willer and Feinberg have hypothesized that belief in a just world influences people’s understanding of climate change, in part because the concept of a planet tilting toward devastation due to human action could come into conflict with the perception of an inherently stable, just world. Their paper explores two different experiments involving just world belief that can also be understood as straightforward focus-group message testing — which is how the research was presented in their press release, and how most climate journalists reported on the work.
The messages tested in their first experiment began with an accurate portrayal of the dire nature of the science: “many devastating consequences,” “a major heat wave that killed at least 35,000 people,” “much of Florida, California, Texas, and Hawaii” could disappear under rising seas. They then concluded with one of two alternative endings, with opinions from fictitious scientists — a hopeless, fatalistic conclusion (“Science Can’t Help”), and a hopeful, empowering one (“How To Fight Global Warming”). They tested how these messages affected participants’ degree of skepticism about the threat of climate change.
Skepticism among participants who had a low belief in a just world declined similarly for both conclusions — they responded to the dire scientific threat alone. However, participants who had a high belief in a just world responded very differently depending on the conclusion. Given a hopeful conclusion, skepticism plummeted among those with a high belief in a just world. Given the hopeless conclusion, skepticism shot up by a similar amount:
In the second experiment in the paper, the researchers primed participants toward thinking about the world as either just or injust, then exposed them to two public service announcements from EDF in 2007 that make a strong emotional appeal, one with a train accelerating toward a child and the other with children “ticking”. They were able to mirror the results of the first study, finding that priming on “justice” made respondents reject the message of the PSAs.
In short, the researchers found that the approach taken by leading climate messengers such as Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Van Jones (“The Green Collar Economy”), and Bill McKibben (350.org) of combining scientific urgency with solution-oriented hopefulness should be successful, and particularly powerful with people who believe strongly in an inherently just world. That audience includes a significant proportion of conservatives and religiously observant people. Another example of the dire-plus-hope message is Harmony, the new book and film from the Prince of Wales and Tck Tck Tck:
However, the conclusions of the research have been somewhat misleadingly presented. In particular, the researchers repeatedly call the hopeless conclusion “dire,” implying that the text about the effects of global warming was not dire (it was). But “dire” simply means desperately urgent or implying horror — not fatalistic, apocalyptic, or hopeless. The scientific text they gave all participants in their first experiment was in fact extremely dire, discussing the devastation from wildfires, drought, sea level rise, hurricanes, and heat waves.
In part because of the misleading presentation in the paper and the press release, journalists like the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, New York Times’ Andy Revkin (who rejects the science that significant climate impacts are already being felt in the United States), Time Magazine’s Bryan Walsh, Greener World Media’s Adam Aston, Discovery News’s Kieran Mulvaney, and social scientist Matthew Nisbet misinterpreted the results.
Dr. Robb Willer responds by email:
I think your blog post is on the whole quite good, and generally accurate. That said, I (perhaps predictably!) disagree with your characterization of our paper as “misleading.” In the messages we used in our research, we tried to give an accurate description of the scientific view of global warming’s “possible” consequences, and then close with either optimistic or pessimistic conclusions. The result, we claimed, was that one message was dire and the other positive, and I think they were on the whole. I think this is reasonable and not misleading.
Put it this way, if I told you something terrible was “possible” (e.g., “your neighbor could get lung cancer”), but I am optimistic and confident it won’t if reasonable steps are taken (e.g., “if she quits smoking and adopts a healthy lifestyle”), I wouldn’t call that a “dire” message. I think it would be justifiably labeled “positive”…or at least as positive as it gets when you’re messaging about cancer, global warming, etc.
This one study aside, in the other studies we’ve conducted, e.g., Study 2 and the various studies reviewers asked us to remove from the paper, it’s clear that very scary, dire (by either your or our interpretation of the word) messages tend to backfire relative to more positive ones.