‘Critical force for collective action’

In a feature from our Research Digest blog, Emma Young considers activism.

Watching climate activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech to world leaders at the UN in New York last September, it was impossible not to be struck by her depth of feeling. For me, it was deeply moving. For a guest speaking on Fox News, this was ‘climate hysteria’ from a ‘mentally ill Swedish child’.

It’s hardly news to point out that Thunberg is polarising. For everyone who feels shocked and shamed into doing whatever they can – no matter how small – to mitigate climate change, there seems to be someone else who finds her outrage unbearable. But would Thunberg really be more broadly appealing if she did things any differently? Are there, in other words, any lessons from psychological research that she and other activists might bear in mind?

For any activist hoping to change the world, their audience must first accept that change is necessary, and also feel motivated and empowered to achieve that change. Psychology is of course key to all this, and numerous studies are being done in this area. When it comes to that first point – accepting the need for change – Nadia Bashir at the University of Toronto and colleagues wondered whether people might resist it in some cases not because (or not just because) they have problems with the message, but rather because they’re not keen on the messenger.

In an online study involving 140 US participants, published in 2013, the researchers found that environmentalist activists were perceived as being unappealingly eccentric and militant. Not only did the participants perceive them as having unappealing traits, but they didn’t want to affiliate with such people, either. Their ‘seemingly zealous dedication to a social cause may backfire and elicit unfavourable reactions from others’, Bashir and her colleagues wrote. ‘The very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.’

Given these results, you might suspect that this particular participant group had more ‘anti-environment’ than ‘pro-environment’ members. However, as research out of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has made plain, the division within the general public is simply not that binary. The researchers identified nine distinct ‘environmental attitude’ groups in the US, each with their own constellation of views on everything from whether an environmental crisis exists to what the government’s role should be in regulating it. Parts of Thunberg’s UN speech may, then, have struck the receptive minds of some across the pro- and ‘anti’-environment lines, while causing others to batten down their psychological hatches. Of course, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. If it were possible to direct nuanced climate change-related messages to these distinct groups, potentially, this might lead to more desired change overall.

What about emotion? Should activists display it, or not? The great Roman orator and statesman Cicero advised speakers to prefer emotion to reason. And emotion-based marketing is known to be more effective than fact-based approaches. Some people do find all-out outrage off-putting. But perhaps our society needs to encourage a more positive view of it, argue a trio of psychologists from Penn State and Harvard. In one experiment, published in 2018, they reported that feelings of outrage were more effective at driving participation in a project to address an injustice than feelings of hope that such a project might work. Moral outrage is a ‘critical force for collective action’, they concluded.

Teenagers are renowned for doing outrage pretty well. They’re also well-connected via social media, and also have other activist advantages, argued Albert Bandura at Stanford University and Lynne Cherry of the organisation Young Voices for the Planet, in a 2019 paper in American Psychologist. ‘Climate scientists have been sounding increasingly urgent alarms about the catastrophic consequences of climate change’, the pair wrote. And yet, ‘Twenty annual UN Summits provided no international commitment to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases’.

So it’s important to look at who might be best placed to really make a difference – and they believe the answer lies in young activists.

Young people are in a better position to catalyse action on climate change than most adults, think Bandura and Cherry. Young people are effective messengers, they write, because without change, they will suffer far more than the adults around today. And they can occupy the moral high ground, because the audience knows that they are not beholden to special interests (like making money or winning elections).

Thunberg has achieved truly global fame, but Bandura and Cherry point to other examples of hugely influential young activists. Such as German environmentalist Felix Finkbeiner, who, after learning as a boy that trees absorb carbon dioxide, set up a project that has led to more than a million trees being planted worldwide. Think back to the second part of what’s needed for change (feeling motivated and empowered to achieve that change) – Finkbeiner presented a problem, and also a practical way for people to help, even in the smallest way, to address it. There are many other examples of child environmental activists bringing about meaningful change, they note.

There is evidence that even in the US, record numbers of people are worried about climate change. According to the results of a nationally representative survey, published in 2019, 73 per cent think it’s happening, 69 per cent are worried about it and 29 per cent are very worried. ‘After a year of devastating extreme events, dire scientific reports, and growing media coverage of climate change, a record number of Americans are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening, are increasingly worried, and say the issue is personally important to them’, said lead researcher Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University.

Climate activists like Thunberg may, then, increasingly be preaching to the converted, and be less likely to be viewed as ‘unappealingly eccentric and militant’ than might have been the case only five years ago.

But when it comes to persuading other people to make necessary changes, it’s worth bearing in mind the potential power of humour, as well as fear, argues Jeff Niederdeppe at Cornell University’s Center for a Sustainable Future.

In 2018, he and a PhD student, Christofer Skurka, worked with a theatre group to create a series of videos featuring a weathercaster making forecasts about extreme weather patterns caused by climate change. One, the ‘ominous’ version, highlighted the severity of climate change and its impacts. In another ‘humorously’ silly version, the weathercaster seemed clueless as he struggled to understand the signs of climate change. A third was designed to be neutral in tone.

The ‘ominous’ video, designed to inspire fear, was effective across the full age range of 18 to 30 years. But the humorous one worked well for the 18- to 24-year-olds, too. ‘The people who found it funny were more likely to want to plan or partake in activism, recycle more and believe climate change is risky’, Skurka reported.

Some people may mock Thunberg. Others may applaud her, though make no changes in their lives. Yet others will take her message to heart. It’s purely anecdotal evidence, of course, but the week after that particular UN address, someone on the Google mailing group for my own street, and a group of streets around mine, put out a message saying that they were concerned about climate change, and asking anyone who felt the same way to get in touch, to meet, to discuss what we as a small community can do. I’ve lost count of how many people have reacted to the thread. It’s true that I would have predicted that my particular neighbourhood would respond in that way. Around here, she was preaching to the converted – but those who needed an extra nudge.

Still, as so many studies, from those run by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication to the extreme weather videos experiments have shown, we’re different, and surely no one type of activism or activist will appeal to everyone. All kinds of voices will be needed to truly make a difference in 2020, and beyond.

Emma Young

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