In November, Media Impact Funders and Vulcan Productions convened award-winning media makers, funders and researchers to share best practices for crafting high-impact media on climate change. In this guest post, Annie Neimand—the research director and executive editor for the frank conference and website—rounds up the latest research on what works in environmental communications, which she presented at that gathering.
In February, we’ll continue the conversation with Neimand and other leading experts at a funders-only preview of the frank conference at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. Want to attend frank, too? Contact Media Impact Funders to obtain your invitation to this event and receive a promotional rate of 20 percent off as a member of the Media Impact Funders community.
By Annie Neimand
Four out of 10 of adults throughout the world have never heard of climate change. Three out of four Americans believe that climate change is occurring. However, nine of 10 Democrats say climate change is occurring, while only six in 10 Republicans do.
In the U.S., most people believe in climate change. So, who climate advocates and communicators need to reach in terms of climate change beliefs is very particular: the global percentage of people who are unaware, and the 25 percent of Americans who do not believe climate change is occurring and is a result of human activity. Yet, reaching climate change deniers is often quite a feat, as research shows that this segment may actively avoid or deny evidence of climate change.
As research director and executive editor for frank — a gathering and website for communication strategists, movement builders and anyone in the business of doing good — I am deeply embedded in the research on strategic climate change communication. I’ve discovered pockets of research that can help those working in climate communications move nonbelievers to believers, and believers to action.
To start, let’s look at the science behind why people avoid or deny information such as climate science.
Why do nonbelievers avoid the mountain of evidence that climate change is happening and that humans are the culprit?
Social psychologists have studied what they call “information avoidance” for years, and have come to a consensus on three underlying reasons why people avoid information:
- First, people avoid information that requires them to change their behavior.
- Second, people avoid information that makes them feel bad about themselves.
- Third, people avoid information that challenges or threatens their cherished beliefs and values, as it creates cognitive dissonance.
Researchers argue that the information that produces such feelings is threatening to individuals’ sense of control over their lives. As such, if media makers and strategists want people to not avoid information, we need to make the information less threatening. But how?
Researchers suggest inducing contemplation — considering the pros and cons of accepting the information at hand — has been found to decrease perceived threat of the issue. They have also found that affirmation — making people feel good about themselves before presenting them with the information — can reduce avoidance.
In addition, researchers, communicators and storytellers can tell you that reaching the head and the heart of your audience is one of the best strategies for inspiring empathy, contemplation and action. However, research shows that what speaks to people emotionally and rationally is very much intertwined with their various identities. For example, it is commonly assumed that if you make the public more science literate, through giving them information on climate change science, then polarization over the issue will diminish. But evidence doesn’t support that.
In one study, Dr. Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale Law School, and his colleagues found that climate change polarization has less to do with lack of knowledge on climate science and more to do with how it relates to people’s self image.
Kahan and his colleagues surveyed thousands of people and found they were less willing to accept scientific evidence if it ran counter to how they saw themselves. That is, people are less likely to accept information about climate change if it is in their best interest to deny the evidence. In other words, from some, denial of scientific evidence is a rational choice.
Kahan and his colleagues suggest that communicators should create messages that do not threaten their targets’ sense of self. Effective strategies should include using relevant and diverse communicators who have credibility within the audience members’ worlds—such as pastors or neighbors—as well as creating messages that resonate with their various salient identities.
Similarly, a number of scholars are finding that what resonates with people’s sense of morality is very much shaped by their political identities.
For example, Harvard psychologists Dr. Martin Day and his colleagues found that liberals tend to favor messages and narratives that are framed as avoiding harm and promoting equality, whereas conservatives favor messages and narratives that are framed as respect for authority, protection of the in-group and preserving the sacred.
Furthermore, psychologist Dr. Mathew Feinberg and sociologist Dr. Robb Willer at Stanford University found that frames that use this kind of moral language have the potential to reach across the partisan divide on a range of political issues, including same-sex marriage and universal health care.
Why don’t believers take action?
For many environmental communicators, the end goal isn’t simply the acceptance of climate evidence. Remember: Within the U.S., the majority of Americans believe climate change is happening and is man-made.
But only about 58 percent of Americans recycle, 30 percent buy green products, fewer than 20 percent of Americans take environmentally friendly commutes to work, and just 8 to 10 percent percent of Americans have volunteered or donated money to an organization working to reduce global warming, or written to government officials on the issue.
Why do so few believers take action? For answers, I turn to Dr. Paul Slovic, president of the Decision Institute and a psychology professor at the University of Oregon.
Slovic has identified three reasons people don’t act.
- The first reason is what he refers to as “pseudo-inefficacy,” meaning when presented with an issue, people become overwhelmed and feel that they can’t do anything or don’t know what to do.
- Second, people’s choices may conflict. For example, they may choose to drive their car to work, rather than public transportation of biking, because the benefits of taking their personal car outweighs the perceived consequences of increasing their carbon footprint. And what people choose is often shaped by the tangible and immediate. People choose convenience over climate actions, because they can more readily see the effects of the choice.
- Lastly, people do not act because they suffer from what Slovic calls “psychic numbing.” How the climate science is communicated is failing to move believers to action, because the evidence is presented in a way that is overwhelming and demotivating.
Slovic and his colleagues recently examined this concept in a series of studies on charitable giving. In one experiment, they told different groups of participants about a young girl named Nayani suffering from starvation and then measured how much the participants were willing to donate to help her survive.
One group, when presented with a photograph of Nayani with her name on it, were told their donation would help the young girl survive. A second group was given photos of seven different children with their names (including Nayani’s), and were told that their donation would only help Nayani to survive, and a third group was given a photo of a number of unidentified children and were told they were living in very bad conditions and needed their donation to help them survive.
Participants were more likely to contribute when they were only shown the image of Nayani. But why?
Slovic found that participants donate not just because they want to help others, but because they expect to feel good when they help. However, if participants feel like their donations will be a drop in the bucket because they can’t help all the children, the negative feelings will trump the warm glow, and participants will be less likely to donate.
But there’s more: In another study, when participants were shown the statistics about the millions of others suffering from starvation, along with a single image of a child they could help, they gave only half as much money as those who saw just the picture. Again, the participants in this study wanted to help the child because it would make them feel good, but when statistics on the number of children in need were included, it induced feelings of pseudo-inefficacy and psychic numbing.
How can strategic storytelling move believers to action?
Research tells us that just showing statistics is ineffective. Statistics speak to us rationally, but not emotionally. People can’t connect to statistics, but telling a compelling story of an individual (think back to Nayani) can create a connection for both the head and heart, and can foster the empathy needed to move believers into action.
Slovic suggests that communicators need to personalize statistics and create an experience for the viewer. Media scholars agree, arguing that the media that produces “lump in the throat” visceral feelings can energize people to take action and share media.
It is fundamental to tap into your audiences’ heads and hearts through compelling storytelling that illustrates the experience of statistics. But research tells us that people become overwhelmed and burn out by big goals with no clear direction. So, in order to move people to action, it is also fundamental to provide a clear path with concrete, actionable and achievable steps.