Inspiring Action on Climate

One issue that drives me to action is climate change. For those on board with the matter, it seems a no-brainer that we should be doing everything we can to reduce the levels of carbon in our atmosphere. But this kind of action is clearly not happening, even among those who understand that climate change is one of the most serious issues of our time. For nonprofits working on climate issues, this can be more than frustrating.

Climate change (a.k.a. global warming) has been firmly established as a global problem with far-ranging and severe consequences such as widespread drought, floods, extreme weather, species extinction, sea level rise, breakdown of civil infrastructure, and more. The fact of anthropogenic climate change is not in doubt; a study examining almost 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts over 20 years found that over 97% of studies that took a position agreed that climate change is caused by human activity.[i]

However, the issue has received lukewarm support from those able to have an effect on the problem, such as the general public and governments. A Gallup poll conducted in spring 2014 showed that only 33% of Americans surveyed view climate change as a cause of serious concern, placing climate change at the bottom of a list of environmental concerns.

Given the seriousness of the matter and the fluctuation in belief in the issue, researchers have been motivated to explore why people have not taken more actions to curb climate change on their own. Here are some examples of what they have found.

Barriers to participation include:

  1. Skepticism due to lack of trust in scientific and government institutions[ii]
  2. Fatalism due to a sense that the problem has moved beyond human control[iii]
  3. A concerted effort by an elite few to undermine scientific consensus[iv]
  4. A perception that it’s a distant abstraction, with effects such as sea level rise too far in the future to worry about[v]

So what works? Personal relevance and retrievability bias. Let me explain.

Personal relevance. As we all have likely experienced, we become more influenced by issues when those concerns seem personally relevant. Individuals find it easier to assess large problems when they can relate them to their own experiences. This has panned out in research on climate change communication. Americans with direct experience of the effects of global warming have increased perceptions of risk, worry, and motivation.[vi] The weather people experience, particularly hot weather even when not scientifically attributable to climate change, has been shown to directly impact their belief in climate change.[vii]

Retrievability bias. Recent experiences in people’s minds tend to overshadow other judgments.[viii] People assume that the more instances of something they can retrieve from memory, the more frequently that thing will occur. Recentness, familiarity, and salience all influence how easily an instance can be retrieved.

Extreme weather may just present the perfect inroad to helping people understand that climate change is real and happening now. While it is inaccurate to directly equate weather with climate, we can use these opportunities to point out that the occurrence of these events is climbing due to climate change. (For a fun illustration on the difference between weather and climate, see Climate Adam’s recent video: https://youtu.be/vpz-qDK9wd0.)

Extreme weather like Hurricane Patricia, the wildfires and drought in the west, and a particularly potent El Nino are opportunities for people to connect to how climate change is impacting them or someone they know right now with obvious consequences.

As one group of experts says, “Place-based climate change education strategies—which highlight the local impacts of climate change in a manner that can be experienced by people with their senses—hold considerable potential to help large numbers of Americans come to understand the issue in a manner more consistent with the state-of-the-science.”[ix]

A lot of research is currently being conducted to determine the best ways to influence action on climate change. Until we know more, using extreme weather to help people understand the personal impact of climate change is a great place to start.

Image source: freeimages.com/TJ Smith

[i] Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., … Skuce, A. (2013). Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters, 8(2), 024024. http://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024

[ii] Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290–302. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0023566

[iii] Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3–4), 445–459. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2007.01.004

[iv] Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming (Reprint edition). New York: Bloomsbury Press.

[v] Myers, T. A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Akerlof, K., & Leiserowitz, A. A. (2013). The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), 343–347. http://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1754

[vi] Myers.

[vii] Zaval, L., Keenan, E. A., Johnson, E. J., & Weber, E. U. (2014). How warm days increase belief in global warming. Nature Climate Change, 4(2), 143–147. http://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2093

[viii] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.185.4157.1124

[ix] Myers, p. 345.

Satire: Appealing to Younger Audiences

There’s nothing quite like ending the day with a healthy dose of news satire. A good laugh before bed helps me relax about all the political ineptitude and ridiculousness we hear about on a daily basis.

It’s clear that programs like The Daily Show and now sadly defunct The Colbert Report are wildly popular, especially among young adults. This enthusiasm has prompted much study to determine if political satire is the new way to engage and educate the younger crowd on issues they might otherwise ignore, or whether it’s just providing a good laugh.

Results have been mixed. It seems programs like these are just as likely to educate and persuade as not. A just-published study has delved deeper into the mechanisms of satire and offers insight into how it may actually be able to influence certain populations. Nonprofits can take advantage of this information to appeal to younger audiences.

In At Odds: Laughing and Thinking?,[1] the authors explore the finer mechanisms of political satire by separating out the differing influences of funniness and absorption (becoming highly engaged in the story to the point of being ignorant of surroundings). In their experiment that exposed a range of ages to serious and satirical news stories, Boukes et al. found that participants who were more absorbed in the story were more likely to be persuaded in the intended direction, while those who found the story funnier were less likely to be persuaded.

This is difficult to tease out since humor increases absorption. But apparently the trick is to not make the story too funny, which then makes it less credible and influential. The effect was particularly strong among those aged 18-28 years for one condition and between 18-35 years for another condition.

So how can nonprofits use this information to their advantage? While the study and many like it focus on satirical news programs, it is likely that the effects of satire could translate into other types of messaging. The study authors suggest the following:

  1. Young adults (between 18-30) tend to be more interested in satire than straight facts. So, if this is your target audience and your issue is conducive to satire, satire may be quite influential.
  2. Make sure there is also an element of seriousness to the message, so that it is clear that it is not only a joke.

Striking this equilibrium may just be the magic combination that both engages and educates an often hard-to-reach audience.  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver seems a nice balance of the two. I suggest a healthy dose of this program before creating your next satirical message, a hopefully enjoyable assignment. While I’m not suggesting you produce an entire program, you can incorporate satire into a tweet or Facebook post fairly easily. It may well be the thing that gets people to click your link or make your post go viral. What examples have you seen of good satirical nonprofit posts?

Excuse me now while I tune in to YouTube for a relaxing evening of humor and education.

[1] Boukes, M., Boomgaarden, H. G., Moorman, M., & de Vreese, C. H. (2015). At odds: Laughing and thinking? The appreciation, processing, and persuasiveness of political satire. Journal of Communication, 65(5), 721–744. http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12173

The Social Proof Shortcut to Creating Social Change

This summer I attended a poorly organized concert. Outside the venue, people were wandering in the hot sun trying to find the entrance, or the line to the entrance, or at least something that indicated where to go next. We were experiencing pluralistic ignorance: after failing to find signage, we were all looking to everyone else for guidance, but no one knew what was going on. Then, a line started to form and move in a specific direction. There was palpable relief as people saw social proof of what to do next.

When we use the behavior of groups of people who are similar to us to help guide our actions or decisions, we are using social proof.[1] This is an excellent way to save time and energy in decision making. If each concertgoer in the example above had to see the entrance in order to know where to go, it would take a lot longer to get everyone seated. However, once people see a group performing a similar action, the rest know what to do.

This intriguing phenomenon can be useful for nonprofits wishing to encourage behavioral or attitude change. Whether your goal is to raise funds to end homelessness or get signatures on a climate change petition, social proof can move people quickly to a decision point. Social proof works best when:

  • The situation seems ambiguous to your audience. For example, in a campaign to fund school art programs, your audience doesn’t know how many parents really support art program funding.
  • The group providing social proof is similar to the group you are trying to influence. Using information about typical school parents will influence specific school parents.
  • The group providing social proof is large enough to have an influence. A majority, preferably a large majority, agrees with funding school art programs.
  • You can state the issue positively. People are more likely to respond to something that is a gain than a loss.[2] Not “parents are willing to spend more…,” but “parents support having more….”

Here are 7 ways any nonprofit can use social proof to further its goals:

  1. Are statistics on your side? Use them! If you can say 85% of parents support keeping arts in schools, social proof will serve as a powerful influence.
  2. Don’t have statistics already? Create a targeted survey to see if support is there.
  3. Hold a rally or event that draws a large audience. The appearance of a supportive crowd helps others deduce that social proof exists. Make sure to share the event through video and photos; social proof doesn’t require first hand experience.
  4. Circulate a petition. Signatures beget more signatures, as well as social proof to policy makers that support exists.
  5. Hold a call-in day targeting policy makers. If they hear from enough constituents, they deduce widespread support.
  6. Find a hashtag that’s already in use on social media that works with what you want to promote. Building popularity for a new hashtag takes a lot of time, but if you see programs with similar agendas already using #ArtforSchools, use it too.
  7. Use imagery and stories that prove your point. Pictures of large groups of kids happily playing band instruments and endorsements from parent and community groups will provide evidence that many find art programs valuable.

While it would have been nice for the organizers to provide clear signage at my summer concert, it was interesting to watch social proof in action, and once we made it inside, the concert was a blast. Where have you seen social proof at work? In what ways have you used it in your nonprofit activities?

[1] Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Revised). New York: Harper Business.

[2] Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Yarik Mishin

VW, Ethics, and Persuasion

The VW scandal has me thinking. As someone who purchased an implicated car just 10 days before the news broke, I feel manipulated, angry, and a big loss of trust. At the same time, I feel resigned that big business, driven by the hallowed dollar, would resort to this type of sneaky persuasion. However, if a nonprofit had carried out a comparable action, I would be feeling far more than begrudging resignation. We expect more social responsibility from nonprofits, yet nonprofits also use a range of persuasive techniques.

Those of us in the business of changing minds, at least in the nonprofit world, tend to shy away from saying that we are using persuasion. Somehow, it seems a dirty word even though typically we are persuading for the purpose of creating a better future for an individual, a neighborhood, a society, or the planet. Out and out admitting we are using persuasion seems dangerous, like we are flirting with the forces of evil to accomplish good.

Yet, persuasion is exactly what we need to use to accomplish many of our goals. Persuasive processes provide useful cues and shortcuts for supporters when making decisions about how to respond to our messages. And recognizing that we are, in fact, employing persuasive techniques could help us maintain awareness that we need to keep ethics in the forefront.

So when does persuasion go bad? Methods of persuasion range on a continuum from providing information to coercing compliance through propaganda. Gass offers a balanced definition of persuasion as: “the activity of creating, reinforcing, modifying or extinguishing beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, and/or behaviors within a given communication context,”[1] and I would add, per Soules,[2] that this activity can take place either consciously or unconsciously on the part of the sender or receiver.

Propaganda, often considered a more pernicious form of persuasion, is defined by Ellul as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, … through psychological manipulations…”[3] Propaganda involves power: it is consciously employed by those in power in order to gain or maintain compliance of those who are not in the dominant class, or employed by those who aim to become the dominant class, such as in revolution. Fortunately (or some might say unfortunately), nonprofits are rarely operating at this level.

While it is likely that few, if any nonprofits are participating at the intense level of manipulation that VW is, public benefit organizations are still using persuasion. Some have crossed the line of good ethics. We have all seen the stories. Some have done so knowingly while others find themselves caught unawares.

How do you stay clearly on the correct side of the ethical persuasion line? Here are some fairly simple guidelines:

  1. Provide accurate and truthful information, even if it doesn’t shed the best light on you or your organization. Have to share some mishandling of funds? Be honest about what happened, then state how you are rectifying the situation and what you will do to prevent future problems.
  2. Provide a fairly even exchange in benefits between the organization and its supporters. Asking for volunteer time or money? Make sure volunteers and donors feel rewarded in the ways you have promised they would.
  3. Keep compassion, cooperation, and common good at the core of your message. More likely than not, if a message divides or feeds on stereotypes, it could do more harm than good.
  4. Check your gut. If you were on the receiving end of the communication, how would you really feel about it? If your internal guide has mislead you in the past or you’re just not sure, find a trusted colleague with whom you can discuss the situation, especially if he has a neutral viewpoint (e.g. outside of the organization).

Ultimately, ethics depends on perceptions of truth, meaning that the line between ethical and unethical persuasion is not always clear. What may appear ethical to one person may not be ethical to another. However, the more you stay definitively on the correct side of the ethical line, the more trust you build with the public and supporters. If you do venture into a gray area, having a reserve of trust means they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

While I am enraged at the greediness and manipulation of a car company, I hope to never see an equivalent transgression made by a nonprofit working for the public good. We have a lot more to lose than customers or money. Our work depends on public trust, and violation of that trust by one organization can reflect on us all.

[1] Robert H. Gass. (2007). Persuasion, social influence, and compliance gaining (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, pp. 33–34.

[2] Soules, M. (2015). Media, persuasion and propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[3] Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. (K. Kellen & J. Lerner, Trans.). New York: Vintage, p. 61.

Image source: freeimages.com/Tom Campbell and Ton Koldewijn, with edits by the author