It’s been a point of maddening frustration for scientists and environmentalists that as the predictions on global warming grow more dire, the public seems to be getting more skeptical.
Blame conservatives for fomenting doubt and confusion for sure. But as UC Berkeley psychologist Robb Willer observed in a study recently, crying Cassandra can backfire. In a paper published this month in the journal Psychological Science, Willer and his research staff found that when people are faced with apocalyptic scenarios, they tend to hunker down and disbelieve the evidence. For those who view the world as a fundamentally just place — called the “just world view” — the skepticism gets worse.
“The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it,” said Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student and coauthor of the study, as quoted in the press release.
The way around the disbelief, the researchers found, was to offer people positive messages and solutions to an otherwise dangerous situation.
The study concludes that, “Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages.
The study is instructive to scientists and public advocates whose doomsday scenarios — no matter how accurate — seem to be falling on deaf ears. For true believers it may seem disingenuous to dangle little stars of hope, especially when what’s needed is a fundamental overhaul of our way of life.
But this study makes the point that presenting a positive vision of what the world could be, and then offering steps to get there, may be what’s needed to get the public out of its climate change rut.