Emotionally-charged global warming messages can backfire: Study

Thursday, November 18, 2010

WASHINGTON - A new study has pointed out that dire messages about global warming could backfire and actually increase scepticism about climate change among the general public.

“Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming,” said Robb Willer, co-author and social psychologist from the University of California.

He said people might respond to such warnings by disputing evidence for global warming and by cutting back on their plans to reduce their carbon footprint.

Willer, who was assisted by doctoral student Matthew Feinberg in conducting the study, said that if the same messages about the consequences are combined with potential solutions, most people could get past their scepticism.

He said such an initiative was important because recent surveys showed most of the people dismissed global warming concerns.

One of the two experiments conducted by Willer and Feinberg involved 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates who were asked whether they thought the world was just or unjust and given two versions of an article about factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Half of the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, and the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

Those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science’s ability to solve the problem, but those exposed to ‘doomsday’ messages became more sceptical about climate change.

The second experiment involved 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist and examined whether increasing one’s belief in a “just world” would increase one’s scepticism about global warming.

Participants were then shown a video featuring innocent children being put in harm’s way to illustrate the alleged threat of global warming to future generations.

Those who had been primed for a ‘just world’ view responded to the video with heightened scepticism about global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.

“Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages,” concluded the researchers.

The study will be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science. (ANI)

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