12. Avoid denial

Purpose: To avoid spreading information that triggers negative attitudes towards sustainability.

Why and how it works
It is a common practice that informational campaigns about environmental issues include messages and strong images about the negative consequences that our actions or lack of actions will result in. Unless these messages contain constructive advice about how the individual can contribute, they can generate feelings of fear. Although fear and guilt can be efficient strategies to gain attention to a problem there is a lot of evidence that feelings of fear also triggers defence mechanisms such as denial or feelings of apathy. Similarly, a message that challenges someone’s sense of identity can trigger similar reactions. The example that follows shows how a message about climate change that challenges and contradicts with a common belief about the world can create less belief that climate change actually is a problem.

Although people have a lot in common it is important to understand the local and cultural contexts in which one operates.

Recommendations for implementations
This handbook has given several examples of activities and messages that may reinforce unsustainable practices. Using incentives that emphasize self interest for instance may strengthen values that have a negative spillover effect on other behaviour and informing people that many act in unsustainable ways tells people that is the normal way of being and acting. This strategy reminds us of the importance of careful planning and testing our activities in order to avoid the negative counter effects.

Example: Dire messages reduce belief in global warming

Despite growing scientific evidence for the existence of global warming, the belief among the general public in the US and elsewhere has stagnated or even decreased in recent years. Two psychologists in the US wanted to test whether there was a relationship between how people view the world and how they respond to different messages about climate change. The starting point of their hypotheses was that a lot of people in the US have a strong need to perceive the world as fair and predictable in a sense that people are awarded or punished according to how they behave. Climate change poses a threat to this idea, especially the common message that emphasize the harm it will do for children and coming generations who bear no responsibility at all.

Two experiments were conducted to test the hypotheses. The first study targeted 97 undergraduate students and measured the extent to which individuals who hold “just world beliefs” respond more negatively to a dire message of global warming than people who don’t hold this worldview. A survey was conducted to evaluate their beliefs about the world. Three to four weeks later they were randomly assigned to read one of two articles in which one focused on the devastating consequences and the other on the potential solutions. Finally they were asked to respond to a survey about their attitudes towards global warming. The second study involved 45 participants recruited via an advertisement. The participants were presented to what seemed to be a simple language test in which they were asked to unscramble the order of words to form sentences. Some of the participants got sentences that described the world as highly fair, stable and predictable whereas the others got opposite messages. After the language test both groups got to watch short movies, which strongly focused on innocent children as main victims of global warming. Last but not least participants were asked to complete a survey about their attitudes towards global warming.

The results of the first study showed that the more participants believed in a just world the more sceptical they became about global warming when exposed to the more negative message. The positive message, on the other hand, led to an overall decrease in scepticism among all participants. The second study showed that participants who were primed with statements of the world being just and predictable where more likely to be sceptical towards global warming after having been exposed to the dire message of global warming effecting innocent children.

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