Here’s a scary thought: a new study suggests that to get people to take action on climate change, frightening them a little can be a good thing. But to succeed, you also have to show people how they can fight back.
In a study whose results were published in the August 2014 issue of The Journal of Environmental Education, researcher Shu-Chu Sarrina Li at the National Chiao Tung University in the Republic of China examined how people’s behavior and attitudes were affected by news articles about climate change that make them feel vulnerable.
More than 200 communications students in Taiwanese universities were polled on their environmental attitudes and policy preferences before and after they read a selection of news articles. Some of the articles were manipulated to make students feel more vulnerable and threatened by climate change, and others were designed to minimize those feelings.
Additionally, some of the articles contained information designed to make students feel more or less effective in their efforts to combat global warming. For example, students in the high-effectiveness group were told they could fight climate change by “turning off lights when not in use, increasing the temperature…when using air conditioning, [and] using public transportation rather than driving cars.” Students in the low-effectiveness group were given more abstract tasks, like “understand[ing] the concept of green buildings and purchas[ing] recyclable materials for their buildings.”
Li found that the more concrete the articles, the more people paid attention. Study participants paid less attention to articles deemed less threatening. But it’s the combination of high threat and high effectiveness that is most potent: students in the high-threat, high-effectiveness category were the most likely to report that they intended to tack action on climate change.
This is because people tend to respond to threats in one of two ways. When people feel personally vulnerable but also believe they can take effective defensive action, something Li called the danger control process kicks in. Would-be victims want to take action and become willing to follow recommendations for mitigating the threat.
But when people don’t believe they can follow suggestions to mitigate the threat or don’t believe the suggestions will make a difference, they engage in what Li called fear control. In these cases, fear overwhelms any sense of hope and people aren’t likely to take action at all.
Based on her results, Li suggests that “teaching materials [about climate change] should contain both high-threat and high-efficacy information, while low-threat and low-efficacy information should be avoided to prevent a boomerang effect.” It’s okay to scare people, that is, so long as you also give them effective ways to fight back against the threat.
So there you have it. The next time you’re weighing the merits of using a little fear to get the response you want, don’t be afraid to do it.
Journal of Envrionmental Education, August 2014
Shu-Chu Sarrina Li
National Chiao Tung University, Republic of China