Polarization may cause climate communication to backfire

Polarization may cause climate communication to backfire
Shown, political party leanings of U.S. states based on voting in the last four presidential elections. Credit: Wikipedia commons

Political advocates who support action on climate change have long sought "the perfect message" for swaying skeptics. If the issue can be framed correctly, they believe, the battle can be won.

A new Duke University study suggests it may be more complicated than that.

"Because has become polarized along party lines, it's no longer just an issue of finding 'the right framing' to convey relevant facts," said study author Jack Zhou, who will graduate with a Ph.D. in environmental politics next month from Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "It has become a matter of political identity, particularly the political party we feel closest to."

Even efforts to frame climate change around seemingly win-win issues such as economic growth, national security or poverty alleviation are likely to backfire, Zhou's study finds, if the communication conflicts with the partisan identity of the targeted audience.

"These efforts don't just fail in terms of being unconvincing," he said. "In most cases, they actually trigger a significant negative effect—or backfire—that polarizes the audience even further."

Zhou published his peer-reviewed study this month in the journal Environmental Politics.

In a 2014 survey experiment, Zhou asked more than 470 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to read one of four randomly assigned messages that framed climate change as an issue society needs to deal with and is worth caring about.

One message framed climate change as an economic issue; one as a issue; one as a moral justice issue; and one as a natural disaster issue. The first two messages were written to tap into Republican identity; the last two targeted Democratic identity. To further test the power of partisanship, the four messages were then randomly attributed to one of two sources: a fictional Republican congressman or a fictional Democratic one.

The hypothesis, going in, was that Republicans would be more open to an in-party message from an in-party source and least receptive to on out-party message from an out-party source. Instead, Zhou found that regardless of the source, all eight vignettes backfired when compared to the control group, who were asked to simply think about climate change as a political issue.

The study also showed that Republican respondents, after exposure to framing, became more opposed to governmental action on climate change and less willing to take personal action on the issue.

"When asked to read information that clashed with their partisan identities, respondents reacted with motivated skepticism," he said. "Not only was there greater opposition after reading the framed messages, there was also less attitudinal ambivalence. This means that people dug in and became more sure of their negative opinions."

These backfire effects doubled or tripled in size among individuals who reported a high personal interest in politics, which functions as a measure of intensity of . These individuals make up roughly one-third of the respondents in the study and one-third of all U.S. Republicans.

"I want to be clear: This reaction is not a matter of intelligence or education. It's not totally irrational. It's just a natural reaction—people want to justify and defend their identities," Zhou stressed. "I would expect if I asked Democrats to read framed messages about how climate change is a hoax, I would also see strong backfire effects."

The take-away message for climate communicators, he said, is that to avoid backfire, they need to take care to target their audience's values and understand how polarization affects their evolving sensitivities and identities.

"I'm not saying it's totally impossible to frame climate change across party lines but it might take more time and resources than advocates imagine, and a much greater degree of care," Zhou said. "Communication that doesn't work perfectly—if such a thing even exists—could polarize these audiences further from where you want them to be."

Explore further

Framing discourse around conservative values shifts climate change attitudes

More information: Jack Zhou, Boomerangs versus javelins: How does polarization constrain communication on climate change?, Environmental Politics (2016). DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2016.1166602
Provided by Duke University
Citation: Polarization may cause climate communication to backfire (2016, April 27) retrieved 23 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2016-04-polarization-climate-backfire.html
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Apr 27, 2016
What voters, politicians and pundits think about AGW is no longer of much consequence now that those who control all the money have figured out that it's real and that they must act accordingly in their own self-interest. Why would the Saudis be trying to divest themselves of their oil reserves now when the price is near historic lows if they thought that oil was ever going to come out of the ground? Also the 40% of the population that hasn't formed an opinion yet can be swayed quite handily because they have no party loyalty and therefore can still use their faculties to see what is actually happening.

Apr 27, 2016
Obvious framing and pandering has a negative effect because it reveals that the source is trying to engage in propaganda.

The idea is that people start to think "What are you not telling me with this one-eyed presentation of the subject?" - and start to reject the idea because they don't trust you anymore.

Furthermore, in democracy it's not exactly the point that people higher up tell people down low what to do, because that opens the whole system to becoming an oligarchy. Representatives are not hired nannies, because in that position they would effectively hold the power to infuence who the people vote into power - which is themselves, naturally.

Rather, it's the point of democracy to find the common sentiment of the people to let the people control the people.

Apr 27, 2016
"Rather, it's the point of democracy to find the common sentiment of the people to let the people control the people"
You mean to let the lemmings be lemmings? That fine by me, I thought that's what wars were for - culling the herd.

Our politicians pander to us all the time and as long as they spout the propaganda we hold as our side's sacred truth we are happy to go along without questioning. When the entire commons and the future is at stake then all bets are off. Money is smart enough to question everything and eventually take the prudent path.

Apr 28, 2016
It is unavailing to frame this only in political contexts. That may affect some, but, face it, there is a breed which lives only to be contrary, to contradict, to nay say. They especially enjoy doing it to those espousing something reasonable and eminent. A sociopathic desire to annoy, to bother, an expression of hate. Common sense, logic, appeals to reason wash over them. They mock but never discuss. Like the Hate Mafia here, they give "1" ratings when they know what was said was true. They make invalid claims. They require ludicrous conditions for proof, but really have no intention of accepting anything, even what comports to their demands. And this is evident in cases like God; chemtrails; acknowledging that sex deviance is not normal; condemning throwing life away with drugs; pointing out the fact there is no real proof of things like "evolution" or "relativity", only people ordering you to believe there is proof; the New World Order.

Apr 28, 2016
Project much, JP?

Apr 28, 2016
You mean to let the lemmings be lemmings?

No - a government for the people by the people.

Rather than a government consisting of hired dictators that pretend to be representatives of the people, but instead are running their personal agendas.

The whole issue is going the wrong way around: the concerned activists are going to the representatives to bypass the public, thinking it's the task of the representative to convince the public that something needs to be done.

But the representative is a representative, not the leader. If the representative starts to act as a leader, you get elected dictators and populists who promise everything and do nothing.

Rather, it's the public that needs to be convinced first, so they would elect representatives to act the public will.

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