Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

Section 2: The climate Consensus commonly deploys crafted emotional communication.

Along with a great deal of subconscious or unconsidered emotive communication advocating CAGW, deliberately emotive communication campaigns have been a feature of the Consensus (in its widest sense, i.e. including government agencies, NGOs, much of academia etc.) for many years. There doesn’t seem to have been any systemic effort to hide this approach. Quite the contrary; articles and papers discussing the various merits or otherwise of specific emotive crafting are easy to find, often with recommendations for improved efforts along the same lines. And this literature is clearly phrased in the context that such campaigns are, as self-perceived, a norm. Perhaps even more than just a norm; a gratifying achievement with an aspiration for more. Yet the relative lack of success of these campaigns (as assessed via surveys) has caused more reflection and analysis in recent years.

One analysis notes that ‘fear appeals have often been used’, and also confirms a long-term deployment of positive emotive messaging: ‘In another study, Hoijer examined how the Swedish media communicated emotions in the social construction of global warming risk and found that hope and compassion were used as emotional anchors to help people understand projected climate impacts. These results suggest that many people do not view hazards merely as something to avoid. On the contrary, interest and hope may motivate people to learn more about the hazard and to take or support mitigation or adaptation measures.’ This study is The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition, by Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz, 2014. The paper attempts to identify the impact on the public of specific discreet emotions like worry, fear, hope etc. with a focus on which ones will move the public most towards supporting climate change policies.

Unsurprisingly, the work discovers that fear based appeals are not helpful: ‘“Dire” fear-based messaging around extreme weather and other climate phenomena has been found to raise anxieties, but also to distance the public. O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole found that catastrophic and alarmist visual imagery actually decreased public engagement with the issue.’ Indeed there seems to be broad agreement about this finding in the Consensus lately, for example see The Breathrough article, or the acknowledgement by Joe Smith at the BBC, although this hasn’t as yet resulted in an end to fear-mongering (and probably won’t due to memetic inertia).

As the paper opens with what amounts to a short presentation of its solid climate Consensus credentials, perhaps one shouldn’t expect any questioning of whether deploying emotive appeals in the first place is highly ill-advised. At any rate, there is no such questioning. Yet in the abstract this is surprising when one considers the knowledge of the authors; among other skills both have training in psychology. As outlined in Section 1 this knowledge will therefore include the significant dangers of emotional bias. And while certain moderations are suggested with respect to the use of fear messaging, these are certainly not for the purpose of reducing likely bias effects, but instead to minimize distancing plus backlash, and hence to further optimize the emotional penetration. Other emotive optimizations are also suggested for climate communicators to achieve the ‘powerful motivations’ that emotional targeting delivers, for instance in the following three quotes:

[1]‘By contrast [with fear], worry was the strongest predictor of public support for global warming policies, suggesting that perhaps “worry appeals” should be a focus for risk communicators. “Worry appeals” might promote a more sustainable and constructive emotional engagement with the issue of global warming.’ [2] ‘Elaboration likelihood models of persuasion also suggest that positive rather than negative emotions are more persuasive and likely to sustain enduring attitudes over time for issues of low involvement, that is, for issues where people do not see themselves personally “at risk” or vulnerable. Given the general lack of public involvement with the issue of climate change, combined with the relationship between hope, interest, and policy support found in this investigation, developing communications that increase public interest, inspire hope, and encourage positive feelings when people act in climate-friendly ways may be more effective than fear or guilt appeals.’ [3] ‘In summary, this research found that discrete emotions—especially worry, interest, and hope—appear to have a large influence on American climate change policy preferences. The challenge for communication strategists is how best to cue these powerful motivations to promote public engagement with climate change solutions.

It is hardly a surprise that hitting on our ‘worry and hope hot-buttons’ has a powerful effect, especially when doing this repeatedly over years. Yet given policy makers have been embedded and maturing within the society to which this type of messaging has been directed for decades, how do we know that their climate change policy preferences aren’t as strongly influenced as those of the general public? The known danger of emotional bias says this is highly likely. And getting more likely; any chance that inefficient access to underlying emotions has allowed some folks to avoid significant bias in prior years, will soon disappear if various calls like that from Risk Educator David Ropiek at Big Think (2014), are heeded:

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2 Responses to Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

  1. Michael 2 says:

    Such research into this realm as exists seems to treat all people as more or less the same; that a sufficiently well crafted message will work on everyone, or at least a substantial majority. I suggest the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator as a challenge to that thinking (it expands on Kiersey-Bates; but the same kind of thing) and both seem somewhat related to Jungian psychology.

    The point is that some people, rather a lot, not only are relatively unaffected by emotional messaging but sense that they are being manipulated and will erect mental guards against that sort of thing. The emotions are still there, but are counterbalanced by recognition of ulterior motives. Having scientists hand-write bleeding heart letters essentially destroys their credibility with rational persons while not gaining all that much with the already-convinced Consensus.

    I once considered a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Two things persuaded me against it; the first was discovering just how political it is and the second is I recognized my own emotional involvement with wildlife.

    Consider the typical starving child photograph. It is always a brown child, distended belly, and looking down on the child. I find such things annoying. It seems always the same; where is the imagination? Where is the photo of an Irish girl at a farmer’s market looking longingly at something to eat? She isn’t starving; she’s merely hungry because her parents are temporarily out of work. That kind of a thing isn’t hopeless and I’m far more likely to help where my help will do some good.

    But if you are just playing the numbers, emotions are a good pitch. Essentially everything PETA does is emotional; and to good effect, my mother intended to give PETA her entire inheritance except, being vulnerable to everyones’ emotional pitches, she spent it, lost it, gave it away before PETA got very much of it.

  2. andywest2012 says:

    Thanks for dropping by again 🙂

    Agree there are various protections against emotional bias. One is ‘innate skepticism’, a kind of in-built BS detector that seems to be triggered by the style of the narrative being pushed. In his decent work before jumping off the deep end in climate and conspiracy theory, Lewandosky called this ‘the key to accuracy’; it resists misinformation and emotional bias. Other defenses are counter-narratives, or at least a cultural alliance with a counter narrative. And of course just plain old logic and / or scientific method, but these ones not too hard to circumvent where there is deep uncertainty and emotive memes prosper.

    Sadly though, all defenses are eroded by constant repetition of powerful emotive messages, which in the case of CAGW have been output for years, essentially based on the misinformation of the certainty of catastrophe. But it’s also true that if emotive narratives hit reality in a head-on clash, reality will of course still win, albeit there may be tremendous damage by then.

    And I think many of the emotive letters do undermine the authority of the scientists and science generally; they cite as their cause of emotion disaster scenarios that are way out of touch even with climate orthodoxy (e.g. the IPCC AR5 technical papers).

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