Global Sustainability Through a Social Psychological Lens: Climate Change Research at SPSP 2014

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

How can social psychology inform our understanding of global climate change? Earlier this February, as part of the 2014 Meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers presented their work from the burgeoning area of social psychology and sustainability. The key event was a symposium titled ‘The Sociality of Sustainability: How (and When) Groups Impact Environmental Cognition and Behavior.’ There were also a number of pertinent studies presented during poster sessions at the conference.

Both the symposium and poster sessions revealed a variety of approaches that social psychologists employ to explore the issue of climate change. Some of the research questions currently posed include: understanding why national discussions on climate change have been strikingly limited (e.g., are people so anxious about climate change that they avoid the topic?); and how media coverage can be adjusted to increase awareness (e.g., is using the term ‘climate change’ more effective than using ‘global warming’? Should consumers be made to identify with the victims of news stories about climate disasters?).

Here, we recap each of the four talks from the symposium, as well as highlight three of the many relevant poster presentations. These summaries underscore the ways in which researchers are using insights and methods from social psychology to better understand climate change and to improve the chances of mitigating its effects.

Symposium Presentations

 1: Climate Change Discussion and the Spiral of Silence

Although about two-thirds of Americans report rarely discussing climate change with friends or family, a majority of Americans are thinking about climate change–with over 40% of the population concerned or alarmed by it, as shown below. These facts point to a social norm of dismissing climate change despite most Americans’ apprehension about the topic. Psychologists refer to such a dichotomy as ‘pluralistic ignorance’—a phenomenon in which people believe that a certain opinion is in the majority, even though it is actually in the minority. Thus, many people conceal their own worried thoughts about climate change due to their inaccurate perception that no one else is concerned.

Yale George Mason U Climate Change Concern

Image: Geiger & Swim, 2014 SPSP; as cited in Climate Change in the American Mind, 2013

Why does pluralistic ignorance develop? It is likely because of a fear of social isolation. When we think our opinion is in the minority, we tend to withhold those personal thoughts that deviate from the perceived group norm out of fear of sounding silly or, more ominously, of being socially ostracized.

Nathan Geiger and Janet Swim at Penn State University aimed to pinpoint the exact fears that prevent people from challenging the norm of silence on the subject. Their preliminary research found that students in their study were in general less willing to discuss climate change when they believed that their peers were not concerned about it, a finding which supports the pluralistic ignorance theory. Moreover, this disinclination resulted from self-presentation concerns such as appearing incompetent, unlikeable, or like an alarmist or even just an environmentalist. Geiger and Swim suggest—in line with the literature showing that educating college students about how much alcohol their peers actually consume (as opposed to a perceived norm) reduces binge drinking—that knowledge-based interventions could lead to an increased willingness among Americans to discuss climate change.

(Presenter: Nathan Geiger, Penn State University)

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2: Of Accessibility and Applicability

How Heat-Related Cues Affect Belief in “Global Warming” Versus “Climate Change” Across Political Partisans

Many people confuse the concepts of weather and climate. That is, they assume that daily experiences with weather reflect overall patterns of their region’s climate. This mix-up seems innocuous enough, but current psychological research is finding that people’s direct experiences with weather, especially as it relates to temperature, can influence their beliefs about climate change. Think back to the winter of 2010 and you’ll find anecdotal evidence for these researchers’ findings: sensational reports of a ‘Snowmageddon’ incited a renewal of the climate change belief debate as many questioned how global warming could possibly be occurring amid such a snowy winter.

Given these observations, social psychologists Jonathon Schuldt and Sungjung Roh of Cornell University sought to determine whether participants in a study would find cold weather cues more or less consistent with climate information depending on whether this information was framed as evidence for ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’. The two researchers hypothesized that climate skeptics make use of motivated reasoning—a multi-faceted psychological phenomenon which involves picking and choosing only the evidence that supports already-held beliefs—to maintain a disbelief in the reality of climate change. In one of their studies, the researchers presented participants in an online experiment with photographs which were labeled with certain months so as to make the weather in the pictures seem seasonable or unseasonable. The participants were then asked their personal opinion about whether either ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ has been happening.

The most important finding from these studies, currently in press in Social Cognition, was that for climate skeptics (namely those who self-identified as conservatives or unconcerned about the environment), unseasonable cold weather reduced belief in ‘global warming’, but not in ‘climate change’. Weather cues did not appear to affect the beliefs of liberals or those who were environmentally concerned. Schuldt and Roh concluded from these findings that wording can exacerbate the partisan divide when it comes to global climate change.

(Presenter: Jonathon Schuldt, Cornell University)

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3: Boomerang Effects in Science Communication

How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies

One popular theory of science communication is the deficit model: the assumption that public skepticism about an issue—in particular an issue which has high scientific consensus—results from a lack of public understanding of the science behind that issue. A further premise is that increased interaction with scientific thought about the issue will decrease skepticism. The solution to climate change skepticism, then, seems simple: better educate the public on climate science.

Sol Hart, at University of Michigan, and Erik Nisbet, at The Ohio State University, presented their research, currently in press in Communication Research, which challenges this straightforward conclusion. They contend that the effectiveness of scientific messages about an environmental problem is dependent on the identity of the victim of that problem. It is easier, as the psychology literature shows, for experimental study participants to identify with victims when they are members of the participants’ in-group than their out-groups. And because of this very human trait of associating with those who are similar to ourselves, we all have the tendency to use motivated reasoning (see Schuldt summary above) when interpreting messages about highly polarized issues.

So, if a scientific message utilizes social identity cues about victims, consumers of that message will increase or decrease their levels of self-identification with those victims depending on whether they identify with the salient social identity cues. As a result, consumers’ level of support for these scientific messages will vary according to how much they identify with the named victims.

What does all this mean for scientific communication about climate change? Hart and Nisbet found that support for climate mitigation policy was associated with self-victim identification. Additionally, those who identified as Republicans in their study expressed less support for the policy when victims were said to live in France than in Upstate NY (where the study took place). Self-identified Democrats expressed the same level of policy support no matter the victims’ location. Thus, when Republicans read scientific messages about victims with whom they could not relate, they defaulted to an in-group, anti-climate policy norm. Psychologists refer to this as a boomerang effect: a situation in which a persuasive message has the opposite effect on attitudes to its intended one. The sobering conclusion from Hart and Nisbet’s study is that scientific messages—unless properly framed so that the victim is highly identifiable to the consumer—may actually cause consumers to keep their beliefs in line with in-group norms that oppose the scientific consensus.

(Presenter: P. Sol Hart, University of Michigan)

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4: Does Green = White? Race and the Face of Environmentalism

Who becomes engaged with environmentalism? To be sure, there is a wide assortment of people involved with environmental work, from many different backgrounds and experiences. Nevertheless, there may be typical socio-demographic features of people with high levels of environmental engagement.

Adam Pearson, at Pomona College, and Jessica West, at Duke University, noted that members of minority populations are markedly underrepresented in environmental organizations and environmentally-related fields of academia. With that fact in mind, they sought to experimentally study common implicit and explicit associations (such as political party, race, or gender) with environmentalism. They were also curious whether levels of racial/ethnic identity salience would affect expressed levels of environmental engagement.

Their research, currently in preparation for peer-review, uncovered some remarkable features of associations with environmentalism and levels of engagement. First, they found that explicit group characteristics such as ‘White’, ‘Wealthy’, and ‘Democrat’ were associated with environmentalism significantly more than characteristics such as ‘Black’, ‘Poor’, and ‘Republican’. They also found that subliminally priming participants in a lab study with either White or Black faces resulted in slower responses to an environmentally-themed lexical decision task (a task in which people must classify items as either words or non-words as fast as possible) when primed with a Black face.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, Pearson and West showed that reporting race/ethnicity before, as opposed to after, taking a survey decreased reported engagement for non-White participants. White participants did not show any differentiated effect for the pre-survey identity prime. These findings together suggest that people’s identification with stereotypical aspects of environmentalism affects their own levels of environmental engagement.

(Presenter: Adam Pearson, Pomona College)

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Poster Presentations

The following summaries describe three poster presentations from the SPSP Conference. Poster sessions are a great opportunity for researchers to present preliminary research to a broad audience as they are briefer and more informal than symposia presentations. All research studies described here are in preparation for peer-review.

1: Media-Induced Doubt in Scientific Consensus

What Roles Does “Balanced Coverage” Play?

News media often aim for ‘balanced coverage’, a method in which spokespeople from both sides of a particular issue are quoted, and their views are given equal credence. Many issues command such objective reporting. But how much balance is appropriate when scientific fact supports one side of an issue, and yet disagreement persists in the public mind—as is the case for climate change? Angie Johnston and other psychologists at Yale University demonstrated that coverage in a news article of a minority view decreased agreement with the scientific majority, especially when the article only covered the minority view. Interestingly, when the scientific majority was quantified as 97% (but not when it was visually represented as such), acceptance of the scientific majority opinion increased.

(Presenter: Angie Johnston)

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2: Political Orientation and Climate-Change Denial

The Effect of Climate-Related Anxiety

Discussions about climate change have become highly politicized, but Kirsti Häkkinen and Nazar Akrami at Uppsala University propose that the relationship between political orientation and climate change denial is actually mediated by climate-related anxiety. They found that political orientation no longer predicted climate change denial when relevant anxiety was provoked prior to the assessment of participants’ score on a scale of denial. Anxiety about climate change was measured by a questionnaire which prompted participants to consider troubling thoughts, such as the changes in lifestyle that will be necessitated by climate change. Further research should explore climate change denial as a possible coping mechanism for high levels of anxiety about climate change.

(Presenter: Kirsti Häkkinen)

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3: A Two-Dimensional Differentiation of Environmental Policy Support and Acceptance

Non-acceptance or non-support for an environmental policy may not be equivalent to opposition or resistance. Therefore, it is important to define the terms that are used to discuss the public’s reception of various environmental policies. ‘Acceptance’ and ‘support’ are often used interchangeably in policy literature, academic research, and the news media. Researchers Stacia Dreyer and Iain Walker used an online survey of Australian adults’ support of a carbon policy to establish a two-dimensional scale to define these terms. Acceptance, they assert, involves only attitudes­—while support involves attitudes and a behavioral dimension. In other words, individuals may passively accept an environmental policy without actively supporting it. Likewise, individuals may passively disapprove of a particular policy, but not actively oppose it. Understanding the factors that incite behavioral involvement could prove useful to the expansion of climate change policies.

(Presenter: Stacia Dreyer)

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