to get to their heads, first get to their hearts.
Can you change your Uncle Fred’s (or any American’s) mind about climate change?
A study published in late 2015 in the journal Topics in Cognitive Sciences does not leave cause for optimism.
Researchers in the study used message-framing theory to test the effectiveness of different messages on attitudes toward climate change. Message framing theorizes that we see the world through a window of personal, cultural and societal biases. Control the frame in a way that aligns with audience values, the theory goes, and people will be much more receptive to the message.
The experiment looked at how Americans’ opinions might be influenced by four frames for urging action on climate change:
- economic opportunity
- national security
- Christian stewardship
- public health
The researchers asked questions from three angles:
- Would policies to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) be good for the economy, national security, Christian stewardship or public health?
- If a policy were good for the economy, national security, and so on, would that sway your beliefs about climate change or climate science, your awareness of climate-change impacts or your support for GHG emissions reductions?
- What happens when you’re exposed to the message that climate change is not real—the climate-change-denial counter frame?
Everyone loves jobs
On the plus side, people are open to the notion that policies to reduce climate-warming pollutants could be good for the economy or good for national security. (The religious or public health frames didn’t move the needle here.)
In fact, the study finds that respondents exposed to the economic-opportunity frame would support aggressively attempting to reduce GHG emissions—more so than did respondents who weren’t exposed to a positive frame. So if it’s good for jobs, it’s okay to limit pollution.
Lies, beliefs and denials
But—and this is a big but—none of the four frames gets traction when it comes to actually shifting beliefs about climate change. In other words, just because you think cutting pollution might be good for the economy or national security, that doesn’t mean you accept that climate change is real or, even if it is, that it’s caused by our fire-breathing machines.
Things really get interesting when the climate-change denial message is added to the mix. Exposure to this so-called counter frame “… significantly reduced respondents' belief in the reality of (human-caused climate change), belief about the veracity of climate science, awareness of the consequences of (climate change), and support for aggressively attempting to reduce our nation's GHG emissions in the near future.” In other words, it may be hard to change people’s minds, but it’s easy to reinforce what they already believe. (This explains the influence in the recent presidential election of fake news, which Politifact named the “Lie of the Year” for 2016.)
The Anti-Reflexivity Thesis
The climate-change frames fall on particularly stone-deaf ears with conservatives. To understand why, researchers blame the Anti-Reflexivity Thesis. This theory suggests that, compared with liberals, conservatives more strongly justify and defend the industrial capitalist system against claims from scientists and environmental activists about big issues, such as climate change, that fundamentally challenge the legitimacy of the system. Not only are conservatives (and Republicans) less likely to change their minds about climate change, but they are likely to become even more entrenched in their thinking when exposed to the climate-change-denial message.
Aim for the middle
None of this bodes well for changing Uncle Fred’s mind. But take heart. As a communicator, you know instinctively that the Uncle Freds of the world are like entrenched partisans in electoral politics. Better to ignore them and aim your message to people who will listen. That’s the advice of Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D., a climate scientist whom the New York Times calls “one of the nation’s most effective communicators on the threat of climate change and the need for action.”
Hayhoe reaches out to the “quiet folks in the middle” and the undecided. She combines a non-confrontational style with open discussion of her Christian faith and respect for the principles of science. “I don’t believe in climate change,” she tells her audiences. It’s not about belief; it’s about facts. “Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not, but if you step off a cliff, you’re going to go down.”
Stories trump facts
I love what Hayhoe is saying. But she’s still trying to reach people with facts. And therein lies the problem. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a trained journalist. But I’m also a student of storytelling, communication theory and human behavior.
As the 2016 presidential election demonstrated, we are living in a post-fact world. Inundated with social media and the Internet, many people today not only are not swayed by facts—they downright distrust them. Even though we may not want to admit it, we are influenced more by emotions than by facts. And the way to tap into emotions is to tell stories.
If you really want to be effective, understand your audience’s values. When you understand what makes people tick, you can reach them with stories that align with their worldviews. Even, perhaps, Uncle Fred.
As the research showed, people were willing to limit pollution if it was good for the economy. That’s great, because the end-result is still the same. If I can’t convince someone to believe in human-caused climate change but I can convince them to limit greenhouse gases because it’s good for jobs, I’ll take that as a win any day.