The Psychology of Climate Change Communication

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 16, 2011

I’m increasingly interested in how education researchers can more effectively get their messages across, so that people act on these findings (see my post about my FFPERPS talk, Get the Word Out).   I’ve been writing a lot about climate change communication lately because climate change communicators face some of the same challenges — communication of a complex issue to an audience who has a stake in maintaining the status quo.

I’ve now come across a great pamphlet called The Psychology of Climate Change Communication (free download, or they’ll send you a paper copy).  I recommend every education researcher get a copy of this (and every climate change communicator).  While it has some flaws (such as suggesting that the public’s misconceptions about climate change can simply be ‘replaced’ with the correct facts), it’s got a lot going for it, and serves as a succinct and practical guide to relevant psychological principles.  Here I’ll summarize the main points, so you can see why I think it’s a useful model.  I want the Physics Education Research community to generate their own version of this (or pay me to do so!)

1.  Know your audience.

People have existing mental models, which need to be addressed.  Different audiences have different mental models, and the message (words, metaphors) should change accordingly.

2.  Get your audience’s attention.

Make the issue relevant and immediate.  Choose a frame that will speak to the audience and be persuasive.  Gain vs. Loss and Now vs. Future frames.

3.  Translate scientific data into concrete experience.

Make data memorable and impactful, use vivid imagery, use understandable language, avoid jargon.

4.  Beware the overuse of emotional appeals.

There is a “finite pool of worry” — they tend to allocate their worry to near-term concerns, and it’s difficult to sustain worry over time.  People can get numbed to your message.  In response to risk, people often oversimplify their response (the “single action bias”).  In fact, Barack Obama’s election may be seen as a single action that was taken to improve the environment, and people may not feel they need to do anything else.

5.  Address scientific and climate uncertainties.

There is uncertainty in climate (and education) data — the pamphlet discusses how to do this in a way that is both precise and does not undermine the public’s faith in the science.

6.  Tap into social identities and affiliations.

People’s group identities can create a sense of affiliation and thus increase cooperation.  The Alliance for Climate Education does this nicely by supporting school environmental groups, and focusing their actions on what they can accomplish together, locally.

7.  Make behavior change easier.

This section focuses on how to make greener solutions the “default” rather than requiring a change of behavior, as well as making the benefits relevant in the near-term, not just the long-term (and difficult to imagine).

As education researchers, we need to know (1) how physics teachers think about teaching, (2) frame educational change in a persuasive manner, (3) explain what our data really means, (4) indicate that educational reform is urgent but not in a way that numbs our audience, (5) be honest about the shortcomings of our studies in a way that doesn’t diminish their impact, (6) work with instructors as members of local educational communities, and (7) make innovative techniques the default option and show how they can benefit instructors immediately.

Easy, right?  🙂

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