Many people believe implicitly that the world is fair, that bad things by and large don’t happen to good people. When presented with evidence to the contrary, they ignore or downplay it. According to Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, this is exactly what happens when such people are presented with dire warnings about global warning.
Feinberg and Willer had 97 undergrads read one of two versions of a newspaper-style article about global warming and its likely consequences. Both articles began in the same way with findings reported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but then one of them went on to describe apocalyptic consequences whereas the other was more upbeat and described potential technological solutions.
The effect of the articles on the participants’ global warming scepticism depended partly on their strength of just-world beliefs, as measured at the study start (by their agreement or not with statements like ‘I believe that, by and large, people get what they deserve’). Those participants with stronger just-world beliefs were actually made more sceptical about global warming by the more shocking newspaper article. By contrast, the more upbeat article reduced participants’ scepticism regardless of the strength of their just-world beliefs.
A second study provoked just-world beliefs in some participants by having them de-scramble sentences that spelt out phrases such as ‘somehow justice will always prevail’. Control participants also de-scrambled sentences but they weren’t related to just-world beliefs. Next, all the participants watched a 60-second dire message video clip about climate change. It featured a train hurtling towards a child and children making tick-tock clock noises – the message being that future generations of children will suffer from global warming’s consequences. After watching the video, the participants primed with just-world phrases reported more scepticism about global warming compared with the controls, and less willingness to change their own behaviour.
This is the latest in a string of studies that suggest fear-based messages can backfire if they clash with people’s underlying beliefs. For example, morbid anti-smoking messages can actually encourage smoking in those for whom the habit is tied to their self-esteem. In relation to climate change, there’s evidence that framing environmentalism as patriotic can be more effective than playing on people’s fears.
‘We believe that our findings should be informative for politicians and environmental advocates who are interested in understanding public reaction to climate-change research and advocacy efforts,’ the researchers said. ‘More generally, our research responds to recent calls for psychologists to become actively involved in the study of climate-change attitudes and behaviour and complements the small but growing body of insights psychology has contributed to this topic.’
Feinberg, M., and Willer, R. (2010). Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs. Psychological Science, 22 (1), 34-38 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610391911