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To facilitate understanding of a problem, e.g. climate change or coastal land loss, people tend to assemble relevant but often fragmentary prior knowledge and beliefs into a mental model. This model is then used to draw conclusions, assess risks, and determine a course of action. Try to guage an audience’s mental model via reactions to initial questions or presented information, and then tailor your message.
Despite evidence that the experiential processing system is the stronger motivator for action, most climate change communication remains geared towards the analytical processing system. Personal or anecdotal accounts of negative climate change experiences, which could easily outweigh statistical evidence, are rarely put into play.
Low comprehension of or interest in communications laden with scientific language may also contribute to the public’s lack of response to climate change messages. (Avoid Jargon, Scientific Terms, etc.)
Environmental Psychology Best Practices #VIScoast
Show Me the Coast 2015
WHAT IS ENVIRONMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY?
Environmental psychology and conservation
psychology address the relationships between
people and their environments, including the
impacts that people’s attitudes and behaviors
can have on the well-being of local and global
Conservation psychology uses “the insights and
tools of psychology toward understanding and
promoting human care for nature.”
(S. D. Clayton, 2012)
COMMUNICATION IS HARD TO DO…
THE MYTH ABOUT FACTS & EDUCATION
ILLUSTRATION BY MAKI NARO
THE SCIENCE AND PUBLIC/MEDIA
• Why is there a disconnect between
scientific consensus on environmental
issues, and public/media perception?
• Interpreting Evidence – how humans
interpret evidence, how they react to it,
and how they form views based on it, is
not merely related to the quality of the
• A large number of psychological studies have shown
that people respond to scientific or technical evidence
in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs.
• Confirmation bias = giving greater heed to
evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs
• Disconfirmation bias = expending
disproportionate energy trying to debunk or
refute views and arguments that we find
• “Scientific evidence is highly susceptible to
misinterpretation. Giving ideologues scientific
data that's relevant to their beliefs is like
unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning
equivalent of a candy store.”
• “Head-on attempts to persuade can
sometimes trigger a backfire effect,
where people not only fail to change
their minds when confronted with the
facts—they may hold their wrong views
more tenaciously than ever.”
MOTIVATED REASONING – THE
PROBLEM WITH FACEBOOK
• Social media like Facebook allows us to only
see views and opinions that we agree with –
through our friends
• Users on Twitter, Facebook, etc. often have
small, like-minded audiences.
• What samples of evidence do people use
when making judgments?
• People usually rely on a subset of information
to make decisions, not all information possible,
or even all the information they have.
• Confirmation Bias – People will downplay new
evidence that is inconsistent with their working
knowledge, previous experiences, and even
deeper values and beliefs.
WEATHER VS. CLIMATE
• “it was cold this spring… that
global warming thing must be
• Requires an understanding of
how the climate system
works, time scales, natural
variability, climate forcing,
basic climate science, etc.
Greenhouse Gases: CO2, N20,
CFCs, O2, CH4 (methane), H2,
INTERVIEWS WITH PSYCHOLOGISTS
• What does the field of social or environmental
psychology have to say about best
communication or messaging strategies to
engage pro-environmental attitudes and
• Would you change your answers for
communicating with a population in Louisiana,
where people have more direct experience with
coastal land loss / hurricanes?
• From your experience, are there better ways of
presenting messages, visual elements, etc. to
connect with public audiences?
• Know your audience
• Get your audience’s attention
• Translate scientific data into concrete experiences
• Beware the overuse of emotional appeals
• Address scientific and climate uncertainties
• Encourage group participation
• Tap into social identities and affiliations
• Make behavior change easier
• Make it Visual
COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES INFORMED
BY ENVIRONMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY
• Know your audience
• Understand their needs,
motivations and values
• Write from a local angle;
• Avoid stereotypes
• Be aware of your
and religious values
• Find aspects of an
issue that resonate
with audience beliefs
• Target specific social
Conservative values: prosperity,
individual sovereignty & freedom
Issues that resonate: energy
security, flood risks
• Show people what they can
do – give specific action
• People need to believe that
their actions can help – room
for hope and self-efficacy
• Show connection between
and impacts. Show people
benefits/impacts of action
Action = adaptation to
environmental issues as a
Be solution-oriented vs.
• Explain root causes of
environmental issues and
tie it back to human
• Help audiences visualize
impacts of their behaviors
• Behavioral Feedback
Tidy Street Project -
Norm-activation model (Klöckner & Matthies, 2004) modified by Niko Schäpke & Felix Rauschmayer
NORM-ACTIVATION MODEL OF
• Create messages that
spread, & connect on
a deeper level
• Think of audiences as active agents of change
• Help audiences come up with their own solutions to
environmental problems they are facing
• Self-paced exploration of knowledge
• Understand how your audience sees the problem
• Foster communities of action
• Storytelling: Personal, local stories; good news
• Avoid jargon, technical topics
• Speak in a human voice
• Talk about your own biases, insights, epiphanies
(e.g. as a journalist or scientist)
• Give a “face” to environmental impacts
• Vivid messaging
• Help audiences visualize future changes
• Here and Now (immediate and local)
• Source credibility: People trust other community
• Avoid hot button issues and terms
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
• Know your audience’s mental
• Ask them!
• Mental models are not static —
people can update them by
inserting new building blocks,
and/or making new connections
with existing knowledge.
Center for Research on Environmental Decisions
“The people in Southern Louisiana that I have met all seem to have a
close relationship to the land. They are acutely aware of their
- Julie Dermansky, http://www.scilogs.com/from_the_lab_bench/beast-it-a-
• Consider people’s goals when framing a
message. Tailoring messages to people’s
natural promotion and prevention
orientations increases the level of response
for both groups.
• Bring the message close to home. Highlight
the local current and potential impacts.
• Tap into people’s desire to avoid future
losses rather than realize future gains.
• Present information in a way that makes the
audience aware of potential current and
future losses related to inaction instead of
focusing on current and future gains.
• Remember that audiences may be more
likely to make changes to their behavior if
information is framed as “losing a little bit
now instead of losing much more in the
The human brain
has two different
and is the source of
instincts, and the
analysis of scientific
• When creating presentations, use experiential tools such as:
• Vivid imagery, in the form of film footage, metaphors, personal
accounts, real-world analogies, and concrete comparisons
• Messages designed to create, recall, and highlight relevant
personal experience and to elicit an emotional response.
• A message that combines elements that appeal to both the
analytic and experiential processing systems will best reach
and resonate with an audience.
THE WAY INFORMATION IS PRESENTED
A chance of 1 in 1000 and .1% are
mathematically but not psychologically
equivalent. Representing the chances of
occurrence as frequencies can improve
understanding of a complex problem. When
possible, use simple terms and graphs to
convey numerical information.
Information processing doesn’t occur in an
emotional vacuum. Use vivid images, but
do so with care to avoid emotional
numbing or “despair” responses.
Judgments about the importance of future
events/impacts tend to be discounted related
to events happening now. Try to use specific
and concrete examples of distance future
outcomes, specifically in terms of local
impacts that your audience can relate to.
BEWARE OVERUSE OF EMOTIONAL
• The “finite pool of worry”
people tend to
attention to near-
larger than long-
• Appeals to the emotional system may work
in the short term, but it is hard for people to
retain that level of emotional intensity.
• Balance information that triggers an
emotional response with more analytic
• Acknowledge that the audience has other
• Make audiences aware that emotional
numbing can occur.
SOCIAL IDENTITIES AND GROUP ACTIVITY
• Group affiliation can activate social goals (i.e., concern for others,
maximizing the good of the group).
• Participating in a group leads to greater intrinsic reward for
individuals when group goals are achieved.
• Local messengers may get a stronger response to calls for action…
People are more likely to take action when they feel a sense of
affiliation with the individual or institution making the request.
• People will often “follow the crowd.”
• Messages given in an energy consumption study
(by Cialdini) in San Diego:
• In the face of climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity,
people may feel that human initiatives are constrained and
even pointless. Can the environment provide a source of
• Create messages that include hope, “positive psychology”
• When your messages contain negative information, pair
them with positive visuals (e.g. images of healthy ecosystems
when talking about biodiversity loss) & vice versa
• Empowering, positive messages of action & community
Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting
Human Care for Nature, By Susan Clayton, Gene Myers