Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

But caveats aside, what this new research clearly says is that risk communication that wants to shape how people feel about global warming, or any risk issue, must go beyond simply communicating the facts. It must respect the primary role that feelings play in how we see those facts. It must identify, with research, the particular emotional and instinctive characteristics that shape people’s feelings about the issue, and present information in ways that will resonate with those underlying emotions. Any climate change communicator who ignores that truth and thinks that just educating people is enough, is ignoring what an important and growing body of research tells us about the best way to get people to care, and act, about this immense threat to human and environmental health.’ This from the article Climate Change and Emotions. How We Feel Matters More Than What We Know.

Ropeik served for four years as the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. If further research leads as he hopes to optimizing still more the emotional engagement, then indeed outreach will go way beyond communicating the facts. Even at the high level of emotional engagement already in play, perception of such facts as may exist becomes fuzzy at best. The strongest forms of emotive messaging essentially become their own reality, displacing fact as objectivity is derailed. Ropeik and many others feel licensed for this call due their certainty of the ‘immense threat’. Yet how much of that certainty is a product not of rationality, but of earlier emotive messaging feeding back into the environmental science community, and impacting climate scientists in particular.

Everything it appears, hangs on that certainty of disaster. This has effectively provided a legitimate platform for social engineering, despite there is still enormous argument and uncertainty about what society should be changed to, about what behavior is necessary and appropriate, even should the certainty of a disaster (without intervention) be a given. And as perceived by the climate Consensus emotional targeting is a major tool, perhaps the major tool, with which to change behavior. The two quotes below from the conclusion of the paper THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ENVIRONMENTAL WORLDVIEWS, EMOTIONS AND PERSONAL EFFICACY IN CLIMATE CHANGE, provide another confirmation of this actuality; they are not about communication per se, they are about behavior change.

[1] ‘When crafting messages on climate change, policy makers will need to first ensure the climate change messages reflect the target audience’s environmental worldviews to successfully engage the public. Further, given that personal efficacy in the climate change domain is affected by affective processes, policy makers should place increasing emphasis on providing substantial visual climate change information focussing on emotive images to attract and hold people’s attention and motivate them to act. Strategies to promote affective components in climate change communication could include message development and delivery aimed at arousing positive motions which may bring about meaningful interpretations and stimulate public’s engagement in reducing the effects of climate change.’ [2] ‘Future researchers could build on the findings to build effectively on immediate psychological effects induced by climate change visuals. This will help to achieve public engagement and bridge the gap between information campaigning and personal actions on climate change. This will guide the design and adoption of viable solutions and ensure continued effectiveness of behaviour change polices in climate change mitigation. The communication challenge often lies in activating concern about climate change and catalysing the desired behaviour change.

The paper is by Haywantee (Rumi) Ramkissoon and Liam David Graham Smith, Monash University, Australia (2014). Among other skills Ramkissoon has training in psychology. She and likely Smith too will be well aware of the dangers of emotional bias, yet despite specific sections on emotions this danger is never mentioned. ‘Catalyzing the desired behavior change’ means still more loosed emotions, moving folks who may now feel broadly empowered, towards driving overlapping agendas. And indeed some other parts of the Consensus are encouraging the likelihood of serious mission overflow, by deliberately casting around for new frames in which to channel ‘climate communication’ to the public. This is an aspect of their earnest and seemingly endless attempts to optimize emotional engagement and minimize backlash. For instance, the following excerpt from a paper to which Leiserowitz is again a contributor:

Results show that across audience segments, the public health focus was the most likely to elicit emotional reactions consistent with support for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Findings also indicated that the national security frame may possibly boomerang among audience seg-ments already doubtful or dismissive of the issue, eliciting unintended feelings of anger.’ From A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change: A Letter in Climatic Change, January 2012. Perhaps this tactic underlies President Obama’s recent warnings about climate change and asthma.

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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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