Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Negative Messages Create Skeptics

Doom-and-gloom emotional messages that paint pictures of the sky falling or the earth burning don’t work well when you are trying to change public opinion.  That’s what a new study by two Berkeley professors found when they studied the impacts of fact-based vs. emotion-based global warming messages.

The professors had one group of subjects read stories that began with facts, but ended with apocalyptic warnings, while the other half read positive stories that focused on solving problems.  Those who read the positive stories were less skeptical than the group exposed to doom-and-gloom messaging.

One of the professors, Robb Willer, summarized the findings as:

“More positive messages will work better than dire, apocalyptic ones… Climate scientists and environmental reform advocates should carefully consider how they could package these findings and proposals in ways that highlight solutions to global warming, not just the severity or direness of the problem.”

This study comes at a time when the grasp Warmists have on public opinion is slipping.  A recent Gallop poll found that 48 percent of Americans believe global-warming claims are exaggerated, a 17 percent increase from 1997.  In comparison, only 25 percent thought the claims were accurate.  To echo Gallop, a Scientific American survey of its readers showed only a quarter believe man is the cause of global warming and nearly 80 percent think we are powerless to stop it – no matter what the level of emotions.

What’s more surprising is that almost 85 percent of Scientific American readers felt the group that is responsible for much of the global warming studies and policies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is a “corrupt organization, prone to groupthink, with a political agenda.” Ouch! … but given the IPCC’s tendency to use emotional and apocalyptic messages, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.

Even though the Berkeley study focused on global warming, we’ve seen similar public back-lash over water conservation messages when they paint too dire and dry a future.  The resulting skepticism can make people forget all about conservation just because it’s rained.  When this happens, water districts can scramble to reinforce their conservation messages from a deluge of doubt – but it would be better for them to provide factual, believable and educational messages about water supply challenges consistently over time.

In other words, to avoid “drought doubt,” focus on the big picture, not the dramatic picture.  While the sensational images of parched land and low levels in reservoirs may be powerful, the new Berkeley study tells us they shouldn’t be the only message because they will turn off some customers.

If you do play on people’s emotions to get their attention, you absolutely need to follow up with cool analysis and ways to solve the problem in order to keep them tuned in instead of turned off. So why risk the emotional approach in the first place?

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