Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

Other techniques are discussed in the online guide The Psychology of Climate Change Communication from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. This tells communicators to ‘Beware the Overuse of Emotional Appeal’. Good; yet unfortunately not to avoid the dangers of emotional bias, but again merely to avoid any backlash from worst-case fear scenarios. The guide also advocates emotional / factual coupling: ‘As described in Section 3, balance information that triggers an emotional response with more analytic information, to leave a mark in more than one place in the brain.’ And ways in which the ‘issue fatigue’ barrier, or ‘numbing effect’ can be pushed upwards or avoided: ‘Gauge an audience’s degree of numbing (i.e., ask them questions about their levels of media exposure to climate change, show them well-known images associated with climate change and note their reaction), make them aware of the various effects of numbing, and encourage them to briefly consider their level of worry and potential numbness to climate change.

Issue fatigue is one of our natural defenses against narrative takeover. It may well be related to or a part of ‘innate skepticism’, or ‘the key to accuracy’ as Lewandowsky calls it. Attempting to circumvent this defense will not only increase the pressure to believe and act, it will reduce still further the ability for folks to be rational and objective about the information pushed upon them. The School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia noted the barrier of issue fatigue long ago. Sophie Nicholson-Cole’s paper from 2004 regarding the use of visual images in climate communication, says: ‘It [visual communication] needs to be managed carefully because responses to emotional visual appeals can simply end up triggering defensive psychological re-sponses, leaving the audience desensitised with a sense of ‘issue fatigue’ or leading to feelings of powerlessness to do anything to reduce the causes of climate change.’ In this context ‘managed carefully’ does not mean preserving rationality by minimizing emotion, it means maximizing emotion while not triggering the ‘undesirable’ effects.

In all these writings and more, I find no concern that such intense emotive targeting and psychological shepherding may not so much be communicating the case for certainty, as manufacturing it. Note: all the sources shown here are completely Consensus orientated; I find no hint of skeptic contribution in them.

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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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