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When dire messages backfire

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | December 9, 2010

One of the perks of working in a university environment is the opportunity to go to interesting talks on cutting-edge research. It’s particularly neat when one goes to talks about things that are unrelated to one’s own research, and they spark insights within one’s own field.

Today, my colleague Matt Feinberg presented his forthcoming research with Robb Willer, showing that hearing dire warnings about the environment may actually cause people to – whoa!- turn a deaf ear to the dangers of global warming.

Check out these clips, and think about how they make you feel.

At one level, the intention of these disturbing messages is clear: to increase the immediacy of the threat, to increase the self-relevance of the problem, to put a face to an otherwise abstract problem. All of which psychology suggests would lead people to jump to action, start composting, change to eco-bulbs. Buy a Prius.

At another level, though, many people’s reaction to these messages is both visceral and unpleasant, which makes them want to shut the information out. But they don’t shut their eyes, put their fingers to their ears, and yell “La-la-la-la-la-la-la.”

Rather, they discredit the message. After watching these clips, they are more likely to say they believe that the threat of global warming is fabricated, and that the science behind climate change is wrong.

One of the great things about psychological research is that we can use it as a tool not just to make observations about phenomena (in this case, dire messages lead people to believe less in global warming), but– critically– to understand why the phenomenon occurs. Polling data is fascinating, but too often leave us in the dark about the psychological phenomena that can actually explain the data (see this very recent example). This leaves people having to essentially guess about why these data patterns emerge (see, e.g. debates about data showing that women are less happy today than before the feminist movement).

Fortunately, though, not in this case. Feinberg and Willer specifically hypothesized that dire messages about the environment are aversive because they challenge a core belief that many Americans hold: the belief in a just world. As the name implies, the belief in a just world basically goes as follows:

a) good things happen to good people;
b) bad things happen to bad people.

The researchers hypothesized that telling people “bad things will happen to you” (tick, tock, a train will run you over) when they believe their world is just is tantamount to saying that they themselves are bad (since bad things happen to bad people). If this leads them to discount the information (because nobody wants to hear they’re bad), the researchers figured, then the greatest naysaying about global warming should come from those people who most dearly cherish the belief in a just world. And this is exactly what Feinberg and Willer found. Another example of fine deductive work in our science.

At this point, you might be asking: what does all this have to do with your blog, which is supposed to be about battling racism and discrimination? A good question.

I just googled “anti-racism campaigns,” and this is one of the first images that caught my eye:

I have a sneaking suspicion that these kinds of messages may also backfire. Of course, not all ad campaigns take the same approach, but the Antar campaign in particular takes a very explicit “threat to the public good” approach that is analogous to environmental campaigns focused on dire messages. It is a good illustration of anti-racism messages that essentially say, “if you are racist, you are bad.” Could their effects be analogous to what Feinberg and Willer found– particularly when coupled with messages of automatic, unconscious bias?

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