In a previous post from my series on why people don’t engage climate change, I described my interpretations of work by Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling1, which suggested that the use of fear can be a poor way to motivate behavioral changes to deal with climate warming:
Challenge 6: Fear can change perception but not willingness to take action and can lead to counterintuitive behaviors (like the “SUV effect”)
2006 was a watershed year in public opinion on climate change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Time Magazine’s famous polar bear cover had the world scared to death about climate change. They grabbed people’s attention and raised awareness, but they didn’t do much to galvanize widespread action against climate warming. As we’ll see in the next post, 82% of Americans have not engaged the issue of climate change personally.
Even worse, if people become fearful of climate change, it could encourage counterintuitive behaviors. For example, people might think, if it really does get stormier or icier in my area, I will need the SUV because it has 4-wheel drive. The irony is not lost, given that large vehicles and their greenhouse gas emissions are part of the reason why we have climate warming in the first place.
When I first saw the Time cover, I thought that mainstream media is finally getting climate change and that people would start demanding action. Now I’m not so sure fear is an effective tactic for driving change.
I also noted in that post that when people are fearful but don’t know what to do in the face of complex problems like climate warming, there can be a tendency to do nothing.
New research by Martijn van Zomeren and colleagues in the Journal of Environmental Psychology2 is beginning to challenge these views (emphasis added):
An inconvenient truth, the book and documentary by Nobel-prize laureate and former US Vice-President Al Gore, is a real-life example of the presumed power of psychology to increase pro-environmental behavior by telling individuals what they could do, and by telling them what to fear if they fail to do this. Although many applauded Gore’s efforts to raise environmental awareness and action, there was a danger that the fear invoked by his message could be counter-productive. Raising fear about the consequences of smoking and safe sex, for example, is thought to undermine health behavior if individuals do not have a sufficient sense of efficacy to transform their fear into action. Without such a sense of self-efficacy, fear is thought to lead individuals to protect themselves against their fear (rather than to take action to reduce the cause for fear). A key aim of this paper is to challenge this pessimistic conclusion.
Although we believe concern for the counter-productive effects of fear appeals is warranted, we think that self-protective responses are most likely in the context of individual problems such as individual health behavior. When individuals perceive a problem as an individual problem, their individual action should be best predicted by their self-efficacy beliefs. Unlike smoking and safer sex, however, one can perceive the climate crisis as a collective problem that requires collective action. Collective action is aimed at promoting collective interests, even if it is pursued by individuals. When individuals perceive a problem as collective, their collective action should be best predicted by their group efficacy beliefs – the belief that group goals can be achieved through joint effort.
This team is arguing that fear of climate warming impacts needs to be coupled with a clear message that
In a series of experiments with university students in the Netherlands, the researchers manipulated climate fear (fear vs. no fear) and collective action efficacy (group action can be effective vs. no information about group action) through the use of different sets of readings.
After completing the different sets of readings, the students ranked in the following order (highest to lowest) in terms of their intentions to take actions on climate warming:
What’s interesting about this is the apparent importance on providing information on how collective action can be important. Their results suggested that even students who were not given fearful messages about climate warming were still willing to take action on warming if shown how to do so.
This brings us back to one of my points in the earlier post.
Challenge 3: Specific warming impacts and solutions are seldom conveyed clearly
Rather than just telling people that warming will be bad and we should all be afraid, warming advocates should state examples of how the impacts will be experienced by people in a specific region and specific steps that people can take to help adapt to or mitigate them. Empower people to become part of the solutions process rather than letting them sit on the sidelines. Climate warming is not a spectator sport.
To paraphrase FDR: The only thing we have to fear is fear (when used by) itself.
It’s an interesting idea, although I’m not yet convinced for several reasons:
1Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling (2004) Making Climate Hot: Communicating the Urgency and Challenge of Global Climate Change. Environment
2Martijn van Zomeren, Russell Spears, Colin Wayne Leach (2010). Experimental evidence for a dual pathway model analysis of coping with the climate crisis Journal of Environmental Psychology : 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.02.006
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