Connecting some Melissa Harris-Lacewell comments to the climate change communication conundrum

In this video on YouTube, American academic Melissa Harris-Lacewell has some interesting insights on the ways our brains process information, and how our thinking changes.

I think some of these thoughts may be worth mulling, as part of the quest to develop more effective approaches to climate change communication.

She’s a lively, engaging speaker, and it’s worth watching for her public speaking tactics alone.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell was Associate Professor of Politics at Princeton University in 2008 when this video was recorded & uploaded.  On this pre-President-Obama upload called ‘Getting Used to a Black President’, her topic really is about how voters process information.

She talks about ‘heuristic’ or ‘schema’ – what image you think of when you hear a specific word – ‘the picture in your ahead about what things are, or how things are’.    The word ‘President’ had in the past conjured up for most Americans the image of ‘an old white guy’ not because people want it to be, or because they are racist, or that they don’t believe African Americans would make good Presidents, but because it hadn’t been introduced as a recent possibility in America’s socially-constructed schema of  ‘President’.  So if you’re going to be the first-something-different, “you’re going to have to push people to develop new schema”.  Pushing people into that zone means that they encounter cognitive dissonance – the discomfort that happens when they hold two different ideas at the same time.

To reconcile cognitive dissonance, she says, we know that a person must be a ”motivated processor” – people don’t process new information in a negative environment. And they don’t process new information when they feel attacked.  They process new information when they feel optimistic, even hopeful.

What you want to do is to create a situation in which people become “motivated processors” able to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between a new idea that conflicts with the old idea.

So what I’m mulling after seeing the video clip is this:

you as a communicator need the general public to process new information (or previously ignored or rejected information) about a situation … but the topic is actually rather bleak. How can you turn Harris-Lacewell’s facts around so that they can be strategically useful?

Look for example at one issue so many institutes and associations are wrestling with – climate change communication.  Attempts at effecting behavior change on the issue have until now have been pretty lousy.  Studies have shown that fear doesn’t work.  Just one of the reasons:

. . .fear of a negative outcome (e.g. lung cancer) can be an effective way of promoting behavioural changes (e.g. giving up smoking), the link between the threat and the behaviour must be personal and direct. Typically, climate change is perceived as neither a direct nor a personal threat. . . (from Public Interest Research Centre)

In spite of all the available evidence that this approach fails, fear-based campaigns like this one (with more clips here) are still produced.

In general, audience responses to climate change-behaviour change messages often have the opposite of the intended effect.  People write off the messagers as ‘doom mongers’.  Or the apocalyptic tone of climate change-related messages leads others into a camp along the lines of ‘let’s all get another bottle to drink and go down happy’.

With climate change, I think that the dissonance is between A –  ‘I keep reading all this apocalyptic stuff about climate change and that action is necessary’ along with B – ‘things don’t seem that bad to me’, ‘I don’t feel convinced that disaster-weather events are really causal’, or ‘if it’s that big I don’t believe that my actions or sacrifices could make any difference’.

So if you tell your audience that negative global consequences are coming unless they act, they’re not going to process that.   If you tell them to get off their asses already, they’re not going to process that.  Those don’t work on me, either.

So you need to motivate people to pass beyond dissonance and to expand the apple schema (same video).  You need “motivated processors”.

I don’t have any answers or solutions here.  But one place for brainstorming is: how might you make a population feel optimistic, even hopeful, so that you can motivate them to process information on a topic as weighty as climate change?

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