According to Edge Hill University Professors Geoff Beattie and Laura McGuire, the way to prevent people ignoring climate change and Covid-19 messages is to “avoid presenting both sides of the argument”.
Coronavirus shows how to get people to act on climate change – here’s the psychology
July 29, 2020 8.22pm AEST
With COVID-19, the early messaging attempted to circumscribe the nature of the threat. In March, the WHO announced that: “COVID-19 impacts the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions most severely.” Similar statements were made by the UK government.
A reasonable interpretation of this would be that the virus does not “affect” young people. But as new clinical data came in, this message was changed to emphasise that the virus could affect people of all ages and doesn’t discriminate.
The initial positive message for young people also created an “optimism bias”. This bias is very powerful – we know of various brain mechanisms that can ensure that a positive mood persists. One study found that people tend to have a reduced level of neural coding of more negative than anticipated information (in comparison with more positive than anticipated information) in a critical region of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making. This means that we tend to miss the incoming bad news and, even if we don’t, we hardly process it.
To make climate change messages more effective, we need to target these cognitive biases. To prevent temporal and spatial biases, for example, we need a clear message as to why climate change is bad for individuals in their own lives in the here and now (establishing an appropriate affect heuristic).
And to prevent optimism bias, we also need to avoid presenting “both sides of the argument” in the messaging – the science tells us that there’s only one side. There also needs to be a clear argument as to why recommended, sustainable behaviours will work (establishing a different sort of confirmation bias).
We also need everyone to get the message, not just some groups – that’s an important lesson from COVID-19. There can be no (apparent) exceptions when it comes to climate change.
I guess big tech shutting down dissenting voices on Coronavirus was just a test run, for what these two professors from Edge Hill University want to inflict on us.
Things have sure changed since I went to school. I remember my professors arguing for logic, debate and reason, rather than an authoritarian shutdown of dissent.