By Angela Lee
February 22, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
Even though President Donald Trump tweeted a joke about global warming to Midwesterners in the throes of a polar vortex, climate change is not a laughing matter. Understanding why Americans choose to believe in or deny global warming, as well as their choices to address it, is critical information.
Unusual weather patterns, powerful hurricanes and severe flooding show what global warming looks like, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports. The recent cold in the Midwest and Northeast was responsible for at least 23 deaths.
“Many extreme weather and climate-related events are expected to become more frequent and more intense in a warming world, creating greater risk of infrastructure failure,” wrote David Easterling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a report late last year.
Yet many citizens appear indifferent toward global warming, at least in their behaviors.
As a consumer psychologist conducting research on motivation and persuasion for 24 years at Northwestern University, I can point to several persistent reasons for this disparity.
First, people may not recognize there is a problem. A widely held view is that people are skeptical about information that contradicts their beliefs. New research by scholars at Northwestern University suggests that people may also be skeptical about the reliability of the information.
From that perspective, shoring up credibility of the source of the information will be important. This would require establishing trust and conveying objectivity unencumbered by political or financial motives. Independent agencies and research institutions play an important role in interpreting scientific data and disseminating the findings to the general public.
However, in this “fake news” era, not all news outlets are perceived equal, and different people rely on different sources. Using multiple sources to communicate the same message is an effective strategy — not only can it achieve both reach and frequency, the repetition from different sources is known to enhance credibility. Using two-sided arguments by acknowledging why some people may be skeptical and presenting arguments to address that skepticism can help to demonstrate objectivity and build credibility.
Some may not believe they could or should do anything about global warming. When people think that the problem is too big for their individual actions to have any impact, that it does not affect them personally, or that it is someone else’s responsibility, then they will be less motivated to act.
This would require persuasive messaging and incentives to entice action. For instance, research shows that both liberals and conservatives respond more positively to different moral framing messages.
Liberal Americans are more motivated to engage in conservation activities such as recycling or using energy-saving light bulbs. The messaging they find appealing is a compassionate plea to “ensure that everyone around the world gets to enjoy fair access to a sustainable environment.”
More conservative Americans are persuaded by a patriotism plea to perform “one’s civic duty to taking responsibility for yourself and the land you call home.”
Social influence is another effective tool on behaviors. For instance, hotel guests are more likely to reuse their towels when told that a majority of the guests reuse their towels at least once during their stay.
Setting smaller goals that are more actionable can also make a difference. “Save the World” would seem too formidable to most, but “bring a reusable shopping bag” is much more doable.
In that mode, National Geographic recently launched its “Planet or Plastic?” campaign and is urging everyone to choose the planet with simple, doable actions such as bringing a reusable bag when shopping; using a reusable water bottle; requesting “no straw, please” in a bar or restaurant; and disposing of your trash and picking up litter when you can.
Another reason for the lack of action to address global warming is a human weakness — old habits die hard. A leading cause for why people fail to achieve their goal is not a lack of will, but a lack of willpower — known as “self-regulation failure” by psychologists. It takes a lot of discipline to set standards and monitor behaviors to adhere to the standards. Constant reminders and social support will help.
My research shows that some people are motivated to attain growth and accomplishments, while others are more motivated to attain safety and security. And task framing has been found to be an effective strategy to strengthen willpower. For example, framing conservation activities as approaching positive outcomes (e.g., a beautiful ocean with vibrant sea life) for the growth-oriented, or framing them as avoiding negative outcomes (e.g., no more plastics bags choking the whales) for the security-oriented can help.
As the country rebounds from its record-low temperatures, it is critical to see past what is right in front of us and commit to doing more for the future.
Angela Y. Lee is the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project, and she is a consumer psychologist with expertise in branding, motivation, and persuasion.
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