I have been involved lately in workshops on communicating climate change (for journalists and for scientists). I’ve come to think that investigating how people think about the issue is one of the most important things we can do. I would never speak for the USA, but in large swathes of the world, climate change science has been quite clearly communicated, given the levels of complexity involved. Yet some of the more intelligent journalists in South Africa continue to treat it as a fringe issue, if true at all. Why? We really need answers. It’s very evident that a lot that isn’t rational is involved here. And how do you study that? There’s the hard science stuff, and that’s ground you can be sure of – but people aren’t hard science, and their minds don’t lend themselves to controls and double-blind trials and so on.  But if we don’t try to figure out what’s happening in all of our minds, what will become of us?

Framing turns out, in what you might call ‘practical experiments’ (my own little efforts, and reports from others!),  to make a huge difference to how people react to the issue. As with the unpublished study, I am finding that both the context in which you couch the issue, and the angle (gloom, gloom, or practical positive suggestions) alters reactions. As Claudia says, it has to have emotional relevance. In southern Africa, polar bears and penguins mean little to people on the ground. Dead crops, parched land, dirty water ring bells with people – because, as you say, Claudia, that’s stuff they really know.

One local survey asked relatively poor people if they knew what climate change was. Yes, they said: it’s something that comes from space. That took a while to work out: newspapers usually use a lovely graphic of the Earth being bombarded by the rays of the sun, you see! That image couldn’t be less relevant to people in their ‘now’.

But if you ask rural people, as an example, if they are experiencing a changing climate by asking if changes in the weather are affecting them, they can relate immediately, and will tell you how they can no longer get two crops a year, or the rains don’t come at the right time anymore, or they’ve had to change their crop of choice. One of our local campaigners around marine life has made huge inroads on how fishermen – the crews of big fishing ships – think, by not telling them the science, but asking them to tell her what changes they’ve seen since they started fishing – which species are you catching? Do you still get big kingklip? And so on.


From: Science for the People Discussion List [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Phil Gasper
Sent: 22 July 2012 08:13 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Cons Psych: We’re All Climate-Change Idiots -


I'll give you some comments later. Comments like "total drivel" are reactions to what is ideological total drivel. My response to this is the exactly the same when I see the new reports on the latest "findings" of evolutionary psychology. I'm surprised that anyone on this list would take it seriously.

On Sun, Jul 22, 2012 at 1:08 PM, Claudia Pine <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Dear Phil -


Please give some reasons.  Phenomena like confirmation bias, as well as many other ways that cognition, emotions, language & experience trump empirical facts, and/or complex rationality (i.e., chains of inference) are pretty well known.  


I'd like to know what your (unreasoning) reaction is based on.


I do think that people's responses to environmental information are based on a complicated congeries of input, including not just cognitive but also emotional, experiential, embodied, cultural, linguistic, social, and other modes of processing.  As such, there's a lot to be untangled, and my own scientific background training tends to make me a little dubious of carefully-staged, one-variable "micro" level experiments.  Human - like environmental - phenomena tend more to be very "messy" and meso- or macro-scale in their unfolding.   


As one example that the article reminded me of, I noticed some years ago when using the film "An Inconvenient Truth" in a classroom of mainly middle-class, largely white, urban raised undergraduates, that empathy for the prospective extinction of all polar bears was a powerful persuasion for many.  OMG we can't kill the polar bears!  But in other materials, presenting the human-centered information on likely rises in respiratory illness, impairment and death from urban warming and particulates -- that got almost no response. Mainly because these kids don't come from backgrounds where painful lung diseases have any visibility, nor do they know grandparents or other older people with breathing impairments caused by smog or occupational exposures.  Some even said words to the effect that "oh well, you just have to work not to get things like that" -- as though it's a lifestyle choice.  For some of them, from well-off elite suburbs filled with healthy driven high-income parents, ill health probably *is* to some extent a choice, not a concomitant of the toxic byproducts of western industrial-consumerist life.


In short, Environmental Justice falls on deaf ears with those who have been carefully raised like young Gautama, to see no one sick or impaired or dying.  But appeals to soft-fuzzy-animals work, because they've seen them many times in the zoo, on Discover channel, and in media ads for the good life they expect to have, complete with globe-trotting wilderness vacations.


So my bottom line is that while research does show how many reasons go into "reasoning," a LOT of research is going to be needed, and not just little psych lab experiments, to find out what's really going on.  Just because our decisions aren't based solely on quantitative physics data, though, doesn't mean the research can't be 'science' - that is, systematic, falsifiable and objective.


... And really, comments like "looks like drivel" aren't science either.





On Sun, Jul 22, 2012 at 10:55 AM, Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Sorry, but this "research" looks like total drivel to me. --P.


On Sat, Jul 21, 2012 at 11:09 PM, Claudia Pine <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Conservation psychology is a rapidly growing field that seeks answers to why we do -- or more often, don't -- conserve the many non-human parts of the planet, even when we all say we care about it.  One thing I like about the field is that it shows how only interdisciplinary work, combining "soft" as well as "hard" sciences, can lead to a clearer picture of why we don't make the "rational" decisions that scientific data seem to suggest.  So when conservation psychology, as in this short review below, shows why the climate change message communicates so poorly to all these "irrational" humans, it also provides a great case study of why society can be so resistant to scientific information, in general.


We can change our tools and technology -- and thus "Nature" -- a lot more easily than we can change human nature.  This may prove to be a very bad thing for the planet, and consequently for individual humans... but it seems like it would create a lot of business for tool-makers and technology. I guess that's great for another new-ish field, "geo-engineering," and other such applied-science folks. So long, that is, as they don't destroy us all trying out something even more damaging than the recent Industrial Revolution's bad products! (asbestos, nuclear weapons, toxic fuels and foods...) 


Frankly, I'd far rather see human nature start to change instead.  But is there any chance of that?  Is that even, evolutionarily speaking, a possibility? We might be stuck with who we are as a species, and about to ride the long slope downward into the mess we've caused through all our clever tinkering with the world.



July 21, 2012

We’re All Climate-Change Idiots


CLIMATE CHANGE is staring us in the face. The science is clear, and the need to reduce planet-warming emissions has grown urgent. So why, collectively, are we doing so little about it?

Yes, there are political and economic barriers, as well as some strong ideological opposition, to going green. But researchers in the burgeoning field of climate psychology have identified another obstacle, one rooted in the very ways our brains work. The mental habits that help us navigate the local, practical demands of day-to-day life, they say, make it difficult to engage with the more abstract, global dangers posed by climate change.

Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who studies the behavioral barriers to combating climate change, calls these habits of mind “dragons of inaction.” We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.

“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Sometimes, when forming our opinions, we grasp at whatever information presents itself, no matter how irrelevant. A new study by the psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, published in last month’s Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that participants seated in a room with a ficus tree lacking foliage were considerably more likely to say that global warming was real than were those in a room with a ficus tree that had foliage.

We also tend to pay attention to information that reinforces what we already believe and dismiss evidence that would require us to change our minds, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Dan M. Kahan, a Yale Law School professor who studies risk and science communication, says this is crucial to understanding the intense political polarization on climate change. He and his research colleagues have found that people with more hierarchical, individualistic worldviews (generally conservatives) sense that accepting climate science would lead to restraints on commerce, something they highly value, so they often dismiss evidence of the risk. Those with a more egalitarian, community-oriented mind-set (generally liberals) are likely to be suspicious of industry and very ready to credit the idea that it is harming the environment.

There are ways to overcome such prejudices. Professor Kahan has shown that how climate change solutions are framed can affect our views of the problem. In one study, not yet published, he and his colleagues asked people to assess a scientific paper reporting that the climate was changing faster than expected. Beforehand, one group was asked to read an article calling for tighter carbon caps (i.e., a regulatory solution); a second group read an article urging work on geoengineering, the manipulation of atmospheric conditions (i.e., a technological solution); and a control group read an unrelated story on traffic lights. All three groups included hierarchical individualists and egalitarian communitarians.

In all cases, the individualists were, as expected, less likely than the communitarians to say the scientific paper seemed valid. But the gap was 29 percent smaller among those who had first been exposed to the geoengineering idea than among those who had been prompted to think about regulating carbon, and 14 percent smaller than in the traffic light group. Thinking about climate change as a technological challenge rather than as a regulatory problem, it seems, made individualists more ready to credit the scientific claim about the climate.

Research also suggests public health is an effective frame: few people care passionately about polar bears, but if you argue that closing coal-burning plants will reduce problems like asthma, you’re more likely to find a receptive audience, says the American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet.

Smaller “nudges,” similarly sensitive to our psychological quirks, can also spur change. Taking advantage of our preference for immediate gratification, energy monitors that displayed consumption levels in real-time cut energy use by an average of 7 percent, according to a study in the journal Energy in 2010. Telling heavy energy users how much less power their neighbors consumed prompted them to cut their own use, according to a 2007 study in Psychological Science. And trading on our innate laziness, default settings have also conserved resources: when Rutgers University changed its printers’ settings to double-sided, it saved more than seven million sheets of paper in one semester in 2007.

Simply presenting climate science more clearly is unlikely to change attitudes. But a better understanding of our minds’ strange workings may help save us from ourselves.

Beth Gardiner is a freelance journalist.



The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.  -- Paul Cezanne



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