Doomsday messages about global warming can backfire, new study shows

November 17, 2010

Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

"Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of threaten people's fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming," said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study to be published in the January issue of the journal .

"The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it," agreed Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology and coauthor of the study.

But if scientists and advocates can communicate their findings in less apocalyptic ways, and present solutions to global warming, Willer said, most people can get past their skepticism.

Recent decades have seen a growing scientific consensus on the existence of a warming of global land and . A significant part of the warming trend has been attributed to human activities that produce .

Despite the mounting evidence, a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year found that 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming concerns are exaggerated, and 19 percent think global warming will never happen. In 1997, 31 percent of those who were asked the same question in a Gallup poll felt the claims were overstated.

In light of this contradictory trend, Feinberg and Willer sought to investigate the psychology behind attitudes about climate change.

In the first of two experiments, 97 UC Berkeley undergraduates were gauged for their political attitudes, skepticism about global warming and level of belief in whether the world is just or unjust. Rated on a "just world scale," which measures people's belief in a just world for themselves and others, participants were asked how much they agree with such statements as "I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve," and "I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice."

Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of . But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming, the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

Results showed that those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming and had more faith in science's ability to solve the problem. Moreover, those who scored high on the just world scale were less skeptical about global warming when exposed to the positive message. By contrast, those exposed to doomsday messages became more skeptical about global warming, particularly those who scored high on the just world scale.

In the second experiment, involving 45 volunteers recruited from 30 U.S. cities via Craigslist, researchers looked specifically at whether increasing one's belief in a just world would increase his or her skepticism about global warming.

They had half the volunteers unscramble sentences such as "prevails justice always" so they would be more likely to take a just world view when doing the research exercises. They then showed them a video featuring innocent children being put in harm's way to illustrate the threat of global warming to future generations.

Those who had been primed for a just world view responded to the video with heightened skepticism towards global warming and less willingness to change their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint, according to the results.

Overall, the study concludes, "Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Video games can change your brain

June 22, 2017

Scientists have collected and summarized studies looking at how video games can shape our brains and behavior. Research to date suggests that playing video games can change the brain regions responsible for attention and ...

Researchers discover brain inflammation in people with OCD

June 21, 2017

A new brain imaging study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) shows for the first time that brain inflammation is significantly elevated - more than 30 per cent higher - in people with obsessive-compulsive ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (4) Nov 17, 2010
"But if scientists and advocates can communicate their findings in less apocalyptic ways, and present solutions to global warming, Willer said, most people can get past their skepticism."

But if scientists could provide credible evidence to support the scaremongering they wouldn't have to use scaremongering in the 1st place.

East Anglia Uni anyone?

And no, computer simulation models are not valid evidence. Especially ones that don't actually tie into what has already happened.
1 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2010
The AGWites are like the democrats after the election.
They can't admit their mistakes or acknowledge the limits of their theories.
It's like the doctor proclaiming the operation a success but the patient died.
"and had more faith in science's ability to solve the problem. "
How can one have faith in science? Faith and science are not supposed to coexist.
1 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2010
of course they cant control for the validity of the information being an influence...

ie... they assume validity, then assume that its message presentation or comprehension in isolatino
not rated yet Nov 17, 2010
hahaha oh that reminds me.

"People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it's true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People's heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool." - Terry Goodkind "The Wizards First Rule"

great examples right here on this site. (purposefully not telling you what side I am on. I will let you figure it out on your own :)
5 / 5 (3) Nov 17, 2010
"The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it"
I believe this highly esoteric phenomenon is known in rarefied academic circles as "being in denial".

Interesting, that the tendency to deny is fundamentally rooted in one's ASSumption that the world is nice and cuddly. In other words, the study has discovered that people who see the world through rose-colored glasses, tend to perceive the world as rose-colored. Tremendous!
5 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
Sounds like a cultural (US) result. Try the same study on a modern western non-religious population. To impress Americans you have to quote the bible or the US constitution or suggest that the US could take unilateral action to prevent global warming and that the benefit would be confined to the US alone.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.