Overstating scientific progress makes people lazy about environmentalism

A paper by Dutch psychologists describes 4 studies that show that depictions in media of scientific progress made in battling climate change has an unexpected effect in people of decreasing interest in behaving in environmentally friendly ways.

The argument is that overly-positive depictions of science might in the reader enhance perceptions of order, which reduces motivations to act in environmentally positive ways. People want to view the world as orderly and structured, otherwise we start feeling anxious and stressed. To combat this feeling, people utilize two types of mental mechanisms to reaffirm us with the sense of order.

Personal and external control 

Personal control is very simple. It's the perception that people are able to influence their environment in a meaningful way. In the case of external control, a belief that a higher power, be it god or scientific advancement, is in control of handling the problem. Furthermore these beliefs seem to be in a inversely proportional relationship.

To better illustrate this relationship, the authors have presented an analogy of a full glass. The fuller the glass, the higher the perceived order.

A strong belief in a god or scientific progress (external control) will largely fill the glass, leaving little room for personal control. When there is lack of a belief in external forces, the glass will be more empty and the desire to personally act in environmentally friendly ways increases. Therefore the significance of media's influence over people's beliefs and behaviors on climate change is even more substantial than previously thought.

The authors then conducted four studies to test their hypothesis. In the first study, the goal was to find out whether belief in scientific progress could be influenced by reading a newspaper article. For the test 103 university students were given a fictional newspaper article to read. One group got an article that described how recent advances have made it easier to combat deadly diseases and how electric cars and floating cities might be solutions to global warming. The other group got an article where advances in scientific progress were also described, but with a caveat that the pace of progress was not fast enough to keep up with global problems. After reading the article, the participants had to fill a questionnaire, asking to what extent is science capable of solving climate-related problems. Results of the first test did indeed show that positive news articles had the effect of reaffirming belief that science can solve climate-related problems, and, consequently, negative articles had the opposite effect.

The second study was to test if increasing the feeling of disorder in the participants also resulted in increased environmentally friendly intentions. 107 participants were tasked with the job of completing a scrambled-sentence puzzle. They had to unscramble 16 word sets that had 5 words per set - 4 of which they had to use to form a sentence. 8 of those sets had words that were related to either disorder or order. For example "the chaotically door meeting proceeds" from one of the disorder sets. After solving the puzzles they were tested to see how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like "The next time it is cold inside, I will turn up the thermostat rather than put on a sweater". The results showed as expected that participants were more likely to support environmentally friendly attitudes after solving the disorder word puzzles.

The third study was to find out whether engaging in environmentally conscious ways increased feelings of control and order through self-action. 58 students were given the task where they had to imagine they were managing a factory that produces air pollution as a by-product. To reduce pollution they could run filters, but that would cost the plant money. 60% is what environmental lobbyists demand but managers could also choose to run the filters at a higher level, but at higher cost to the factory. Then their feelings of personal control were tested with questions such as "to what extent do you feel that you can control what happens in your life?" Again the results supported the hypothesis of the authors that participants who engaged in environmentally positive ways had increased feelings of personal control.

The final fourth study was conducted to see if reading newspaper articles that affirm scientific progress diminish feelings of disorder and reduce environmentally friendly attitudes and if articles questioning science's progress had the opposite effect. 43 students were given an article either affirming or questioning scientific progress. Then they were asked to complete a questionnaire that measured their perceptions of disorder, environmental attitudes and their behavioral intentions. Next they were given the task of picking out groceries. Previous research indicated that preference for organic products were correlated to caring for the environment, so the more organic groceries the participants picked, the higher their level of environmental consciousness.

Participants who read newspaper articles that affirmed scientific progress, experienced lower disorder than those who read articles that questioned scientific progress. Those that read the article affirming scientific progress, also showed less environmentally friendly intentions and chose less organic products.


These results mean that the way news regarding climate change is framed is crucial. Too many positive articles about scientific advancement and the general population starts feeling less interested in engaging in environmentally positive behavior themselves. If people feel that the problem is not in their hands but in the hands of science (or God for that matter), they are disinclined to take personal action to combat this problem.

Read the paper here: http://bastiaanrutjens.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/meijers_rutjens2014affirming_science_ejsp.pdf
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