• Nature article on psychology of climate change communication concludes research is needed

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

An article in Nature magazine by three psychologists from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst has critiqued the psychology behind public communication about climate change. A highly pessimistic ‘doom and gloom’ article in New York Magazine in 2017 (the magazine’s most read online article ever) which was both criticised and praised for its psychological affects on readers sparked the critique, which argues that in fact there is little conclusive evidence to argue for hopeful or fear-inducing approaches to communications. However, some things are known. The common assumption of a simple split between hopeful or pessimistic messages that pull simple emotional levers that spur people to action is far too simplistic; the authors stress the complexity of human minds, the variation between them, the importance of context, and the fact that immediate emotional responses to certain information can lead over time to modified behaviours. On this latter point, there is relatively little research, but that which has been done suggests that behaviours may change “drastically” over time, leading the authors to write “communicators and researchers cannot assume that the short-term affective impacts of particular messages are indicative of meaningful behavioural responses, nor can they assume that an immediate emotional response will persist or have consistent effects over time”. The downstream effects are “unknown”, and there is need for more psychological research. There are also misconceptions about the usefulness of certain emotional responses – anger, for instance, is rarely seen as helpful, but the authors write that it can often lead to effective and practical action (rather than, say, violence). Overall, the authors’ view is that “the current evidence base and dominant approaches to studying emotion in climate change communication do not support definitive, simplistic, and overly broad assertions about the effect of specific emotions on climate change responses.” However, they do recommend that communicators try to “meet intended audiences where they are” (i.e. tailor information to specific audiences) rather than attempt to “socially engineer emotional appeals”. The paper may be most useful as a call to action for more research.