The psychology of communication: Here and how; not gloom and doom

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By Paul Holper

Science organisations want to explain their work to increase impact and use of results. Scientists know that science is important and would like others to feel the same. They also realise that science that no one knows about may find itself short of support and money.

Decades ago, laboratories began employing information officers, science communicators, public relations people and the like to pump out the facts. They wrote newspaper features, brochures, pamphlets and books, some consuming forests to describe the importance of healthy ecosystems.

This approach is known as the ‘empty bucket’ or ‘deficit’ model. It assumes that people have gaps in their heads ready to be filled with facts, and that if a little fact pushing doesn’t work, then increasing the flow of brochures, newspaper articles, and radio talks will help.

The problem is that communication theory has pointed out that the deficit model has limited effectiveness. Often it fails completely, having the opposite effect of what was intended.

Climate change is an example of the failure of the deficit model. Despite massive communication efforts, a considerable proportion of people do not accept that climate change is caused by human activities. Brulle et al. (2012) suggest that climate science has little direct influence on public opinion on climate change in the United States.

Propagation of more and more information is not the way to engage people with complex issues like climate change. Social scientists have long realised that inclusion and dialogue are essential.

Improving public engagement with climate change: five ‘best practice’ insights from psychological science by van der Linden et al. (2015) provides recommendations on this topic. The five insights apply more widely than climate change.

Paraphrased, they are:

  1. Our brains value experience over analysis
  2. We are social and mimic peer behaviour
  3. The here and now is more important than something that may (or may not) affect us profoundly in future
  4. We like to win
  5. Human motivation is powerful.

Applying these insights to communication means that we:

  1. Highlight personal experiences and local examples
  2. Describe effective local action
  3. Emphasise local changes
  4. Accentuate the positive (for example, reducing emissions equals cleaner air)
  5. Seek to build a better tomorrow.

So rather than ineffective messages of gloom and doom, the more effective communication approach relies on familiarity, hope and optimism.

References

Brulle, R., Carmichael, J. and Craig Jenkins, J. (2012) Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010. Journal of Climatic Change.

van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015) Improving public engagement with climate change: Five “best practice” insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

 

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