Are stats or stories more motivating? It depends on your politics...

Jon Deery investigates how different communication styles might influence partisan individuals to help the environment.

Jon Deery
30th May 2021
Climate change is real, it’s happening, and it’s the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Given that, it shouldn’t be hard to convince people to act to stop it. But actually, as every activist and scientist has found, motivating genuine action on the climate is incredibly complex. A new study from Johns Hopkins University could possibly reveal the key factor in what gets people to act: their political orientation.

Here are two sentences:

1) A real man from Delaware, biting into what he thought was a perfectly healthy shellfish, was killed by the poisonous nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants inside.

2) Nitrogen and phosphorus loads are polluting the Delaware River Basin, which 8 million people rely on for clean water.

Which sentence, if you’d viewed it on its own, would make you more likely to buy products that reduce storm water runoff, which often puts phosphorus and nitrogen into nearby soil?

If you chose the first sentence, the sad story of the man dying of a bad shellfish, you’re likely to identify as left-wing politically. If you’re more taken by the fact-based second sentence, you’d more likely vote Conservative in an election.

Did that test work?

Because those were the findings of a new study by Johns Hopkins University, which put similar prompts before their subjects, telling one group the story of the man’s unfortunate shellfish death, and the other group some basic facts about nutrient pollution. They then offered the participants chance to bid for products worth less than $10 that could reduce storm water runoff; items like soil test kits and soaker hoses.

The story made liberal participants 17 percent more willing to buy the products. Conservatives, on the other hand, knocked a dollar off the price they were willing to pay after hearing the narrative. They were more encouraged by the factual presentation.

A chapter in the biologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave goes into detail about exactly how distinct the worldviews are between left- and right-leaning people, showing that political differences can predict everything from people’s attitudes on wars to their stance on public ice-cream consumption.

Another two sentences, taken from Sapolsky’s book:

1) 'It’s usually possible to dress like a Republican or lick ice-cream like a Democrat'.

2) 'A four-year old’s openness to a new toy predicts how open she’ll be as an adult to, say, the United States forging new relations with Iran or Cuba'.

What those sentences tell us is that conservatives have an entire, wide-reaching worldview that even makes them think about ice cream differently than progressives. And also, that those worldviews are ingrained in all of us from very early in our lives. Which means it should be obvious that conservatives and progressives should be approached differently when it comes to a world-encompassing issue like climate change.

Cognitive linguist George Lackoff has spent decades researching the differences between conservative and political worldviews, and has found that: 'What counts as a “rational argument” is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different'.

Given the divide, it is all the more important that studies like the Johns Hopkins University study are conducted, so that all sides of the political spectrum can be included in climate change action.

As the authors of the study wrote, 'the complexity and psychological distance of global environmental challenges are at odds with the processes of everyday decision making. Reframing these problems using narratives can encourage some people to make choices that are better for the environment'.

'In the face of global environmental challenges that may threaten future prosperity, can harnessing people’s humanity be justified if it aligns their individual actions with the interests of society, both current and future?'

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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