Research & Insights

The Messenger Is The Message

When it comes to sources of information on threats from global warming, who are you going to believe? A well-known personality like Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”? President Barack Obama? Or your co-worker or next-door neighbor?

New research, to be published shortly in Environmental Communication, suggests that proximity matters, and people tend to regard those closest to them – family members, friends, neighbors, religious leaders and coworkers – as their go-to sources for understanding conflicting messages about climate change.

Winners of a $1,500 frank prize, David Sleeth-Keppler of Humbolt State University, and Robert Perkowitz and Meighen Speiser of ecoAmerica, surveyed over 1,700 American adults to learn their attitudes toward both climate change and ways to address it. They also gathered data on how much trust people have in formal sources of information (scientists, government workers, etc.) as well as informal sources (neighbors, church leaders, co-workers, etc.). Participants were asked, “Which of the following people or groups of people would you trust for guidance about solutions to climate change?”

The study found that people who trust formal communicators like the president and scientists are just as likely to trust informal communicators like friends and family. “[T]rust in formal communicators (scientists and Obama) is not at odds with trust in informal communicators,” the researchers explain, “and may reflect the general notion that various stakeholders need to work together to solve climate change.”

For people with low levels of trust in formal communicators, however, informal communicators are important. People who “do not primarily rely on formal communicators on solutions to climate change instead rely more on various informal communicators,” the researchers note. For instance, participants who were more conservative and more religious tended to put more trust in “religious leaders, congregants, neighbors, co-workers, bosses and health professionals on solutions to climate change.”

One of the reasons researchers say people are more trusting of family, friends and co-workers is that those individuals are already part of their communities. Scientists and political leaders are viewed as outsiders and lack what social scientists call “epistemic authority” – a credibility that comes from being seen as someone who also shares the community’s values and speaks from a place of goodwill. So when a scientist or political leader takes up the challenge of trying to convince people to think differently about climate change, their messages are likely to be greeted with skepticism because of their outsider status.

One of the ways researchers suggest to overcome potential resistance is to take into account the power of informal networks – and using people in them to help carry messages.

“Our current study suggests a shift in focus from official to more informal channels to build support on climate issues,” they note. “[O]ur general finding that many Americans trust informal groups on climate solutions is in natural alignment with examples of recent grassroots movements designed to affect social change or policies, including…the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street populist movements.”

You can view David Sleeth-Keppler’s frank 2015 talk here.

David Sleeth-Keppler, Humbolt State University
Robert Perkowitz and Meighen Speiser, ecoAmerica

Posted: March 27, 2015
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