Apocalypse Not: Study Says Cool Down the Climate Message

Image from an Envrionmental Defense Fund TV campaign

Remember that TV ad that represented climate change as an oncoming train? Polar bears falling from the sky and spattering on the sidewalk? If a new study from sociologists at UC Berkeley is any indication, they probably backfired.

Sociology Professor Rob Willer says more than two years of testing with college students and subjects recruited over the Internet reveal that if projections of severe climate impacts clash with a person’s fundamental view of a safe and stable world, that person is less likely to act on it.

“When you underscore potential ways out of the problem,” says Willer, “Then you can communicate the facts of climate change without threatening people so much that they deny the problem.

Willer says that repeatedly exposing subjects to “negative” messages about climate change affected more than their personal motivation to address it; their belief in the science behind the message was actually eroded. And he says that people in the study tended to be put off by “scary” messages, regardless of their politics.

As part of the negative messaging, Willer showed subjects the “train” spot produced by the Environmental Defense Fund. Willer says it was not a motivator in his study, even though it ends with the message “There’s still time.”

The study’s conclusions came as no surprise to “messaging” experts at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference, wrapping up today in Sacramento.

Anne Dougherty, Manager of Social & Behavioral Research at Oakland-based Opinion Dynamics Corporation, says that motivational messaging in general should steer clear of tones that are bleak, catastrophic, punitive or scary. “There is this tendency to disassociate with messaging when the messaging is bleak,” said Dougherty. “People, in order to be inspired to take action, need to feel a bit optimistic about what they’re going to be doing.”

Dougherty’s company has been involved in developing energy conservation campaigns in California, such as “Flex Your Power” and the upcoming “Engage 360” campaign, sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Willer says his study focused on personal actions, not what the government should do about global warming. His work will appear in the journal Psychological Science early next year.

Meanwhile, what motivates you? What doesn’t?

  • Tom

    did the research happen to statistically correct for the number of people who’d heard about “Climate Gate” scientific fraud? Maybe its less “emotional” than an actual awakening by general population that temperature is NOT affected so much by mankind. Maybe people are not disconnetd because the message is “scary” but disconnected because the message is false. People are just not stupid.

  • Don

    This is definitely the right way to go. People must be calmed, and the media has a responsibility to make people behave. China has it right on this point. People who say alarming things in China are arrested for disturbing the public stability. With the new congress, perhaps we can start an office of public order. It should be a felony to say alarming things that might disturb the economy.

    • Bruce Jensen

      Oh, that’s really great, Don. Let’s trample people’s First Amendment rights.

  • Alex

    Don,
    China does not a “first amendment”. Why don’t you be the first to give up your rights?

    • Eric

      Interestingly, the PRC constitution does have sections that guarantee universal free speech. The government simply ignores that constitutional right.

  • 2contango

    Unfortunately, the environmental community has long used hyperbolic claims that end up undermining their credibility. The World Wildlife Fund is one of the worst. They’ll say anything to raise money.

    • Bruce Jensen

      How do you know the claims are hyperbolic?

      How do you know that the claims surrounding climate change are hyperbolic?

      Much of what you believe to be hyperbolic is actually founded in subtleties of science that few people take the time to understand. For those people, EVERYTHING sounds hyperbolic.

  • Cortney

    Nice trolling, Don. Got somebody to surface immediately. Probably a little to heavy with the “felony” stuff.

  • Paulg

    The climate claims regarding the melting of all Himalayan glaciers in the near future were
    later admitted to be wrong and based on faulty data. They were published by the UN and repeated endlessly. Even a lay person would have had doubts regarding this claim’s origins but the UN did not. That was just one of several similar public relations disasters.

    Who wouldn’t be skeptical at this point ?

  • Craig Miller

    Good to have a discussion going on this. Let’s keep in mind a couple of points:
    1. The UC Berkeley study in no way calls into question the prevailing climate science.
    2. At least three or four separate investigations have concluded that there was no “fraud” associated with the East Anglia emails. The IPCC is by no means infallible but even self-described skeptics and pragmatists like Bjorn Lomborg and Roger Pielke Jr. do not differ with the core conclusions of the IPCC. We know because we’ve interviewed them. It seems like it’s time to move the discussion forward to “How do we deal with this,” rather than whether it’s happening.
    A useful discussion is going on now at the Yale Forum:
    http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2010/11/scientists-and-journalists-on-lessons-learned/

  • James Mayeau

    One thing that always motivates me is the disclaimer preamble or post script that says
    “study X in no way calls into question the prevailing climate science”, even when it does.

    It motivates me into categorizing the person or entity saying it as a political hack.