Based on the European Journal of Social Pscyhology’s August Special Issue on the subject, guest blogger Kelly Fielding from Queensland University looks at the role social psychology can play in engaging people with climate change.
Why do some people believe in climate change and others not? What prevents some and motivates others to take action? How can people be encouraged to change their mind about climate change? These are all critical questions that social psychologists can help to address, which is why the European Journal of Social Psychology published a Special Issue on the subject this August.
Polls and the media tend to focus on the number of people who do or don’t believe that climate change is happening. But for social psychologists, the important and interesting question is always why?
One of the major challenges – particularly in developed parts of the world – when it comes to engaging people with climate change is that it is often perceived as a distant in both time and space. It’s therefore important to find ways to bring the issue to life and make it feel more tangible and immediate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, personal experience of extreme weather events has been found to have an effect on people’s understanding of climate change. Van Der Linden (2014), for example, shows that experiencing extreme weather events leads to a greater perceived risk from climate change. The study also found, however, that greater knowledge of the causes of climate change leads to more negative emotions about the issue. Risk and negative emotions appear to mutually reinforce each other suggesting that: 1) it is important for people to interpret extreme weather experiences in terms of climate change and, 2) knowledge and feelings are both influences on climate change beliefs.
Social norms also have a significant role when it comes to people’s attitudes to particular issues. We like to think that we march to the beat of our own drum, but the reality is that we’re influenced by what others do and what they think we should do, especially if we think of those ‘others’ as one of ‘us’. One noteworthy outcome of this effect in terms of climate change is that political conservatives are less likely to believe in climate change and vice versa for political progressives, simply because these attitudes align with the norms of their political groups.
Understanding what influences people’s opinions on climate change is important. But more crucial is identifying what might prevent those who do believe climate change is happening from taking action to prevent it. Because the truth of the matter is that people’s attitudes do not always translate into action.
This too is related to social norms; the behaviour of the people around us affects our own behaviour. And if no one else is seen to be reducing their air travel or car use, for example, then we start to wonder how important the issue really is. Research carried out by Rees and Bamberg (2014) confirms this: people were more likely to want to take part in a neighbourhood climate protection initiative if they thought others in their neighbourhood would also take part. So when it comes to communicating climate change, it’s important to make it clear that others, particularly others like the audience being addressed, are taking action to address climate change too. Or in other words, it’s important to think about how the message is ‘framed’.
According to the findings of Bertolotti and Catellani (2014) messages relating to climate change policies are most persuasive when different levels of message framing fit with each other and with the regulatory focus of the recipient. For example, people support policies that promote investment in renewable energy when they are framed in terms of positive, growth-related outcomes whereas there is greater support for a policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when it is framed as avoiding negative, safety-related outcomes.
It may also be important to think about how to frame the role of science in addressing climate change. Meijers and Rutjens (2014) showed that portraying science as making rapid progress that can enable societies to control future environmental and human health problems reduced the likelihood that people would engage in environmentally friendly behaviour. What this type of framing does is increase our perceived control over climate change, giving us a sense that we don’t need to worry so much about taking action.
The take home message from the research is this: it’s important not to overstate scientific progress and to think carefully about whether your message ‘fits’ with your policy, not to mention your audience.
Many approaches to messaging about climate change present humans as the villains – The Age of Stupid is a prime example. But does this type of framing work? Research by Cheung, Luke and Maio (2014) suggests that it might. They showed that people who had less altruistic and socially-minded values had stronger environmental engagement when they received negative messages about humanity than when they received positive messages.
As the recent work stemming from the ‘Nudge’ approach has also shown, changing behaviour could be as simple as the instructions you provide to people. For example, McDonald, Newell and Denson (2014) showed that people were willing to engage in 30% more pro-environmental behaviours when they were asked to cross off the pro-environmental behaviours that they would not consider doing compared to when they were asked to consider the behaviours they would consider doing.
As the above examples all illustrate, social psychology can offer valuable insight into people’s attitudes and actions – and even how we might go about changing them for the better. This makes it a hugely useful tool in terms of seeking solutions for how the issue of climate change is addressed.
References: all these articles (and many more!) can be found in the Talking Climate Database
Bertolotti, M., Catellani, P. (2014). Effects of message framing in policy communication on climate change. European Journal of Social Psychology. 44 (5), 474-486.
Cheung, W., Luke, M., Maio, G. (2014). On attitudes towards humanity and climate change: The effects of humanity esteem and self-transcendence values on environmental concerns. European Journal of Social Psychology. 44 (5), 496-506.
McDonald, R., Newell, B., Denson, T. (2014). Would you rule out going green? The effect of inclusion versus exclusion mindset on pro-environmental willingness. European Journal of Social Psychology. 44 (5), 507-513.
Meijers, M., Rutjens, B. (2014).Affirming belief in scientific progress reduces environmentally friendly behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology. 44 (5), 487-495.
Rees, H., Bamberg, S. (2014). Climate protection needs societal change: Determinants of intention to participate in collective climate action. European Journal of Social Psychology. 44 (5), 466-473.
Van der Linden, S. (2014). On the relationship between personal experience, affect and risk perception: The case of climate change. European Journal of Social Psychology. 44 (5), 430-444.