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Character  &  Context

“Spiral of Silence” Makes Climate Change a Taboo Topic

Illustrations themed around recylcing

By Lisa M.P. Munoz

So you just read an article about the climate change talks wrapping up this week in Warsaw. Will you discuss it with your co-workers or over Thanksgiving dinner? Even if climate change is a topic you care about, you may stay silent if you sense that others disagree with you. You can add it to the list of seemingly taboo topics: politics, religion, and now, climate change. But the reason why people keep quiet about climate change may surprise you. According to new research, it’s not for fear of others not liking you but for fear of being perceived as incompetent.

Janet Swim of Penn State University compares it to the Emperor’s New Clothes, where our planet is the Emperor. “We know there is a problem with the Planet but we are not willing to be the one who says something because we don’t know why others are not saying anything,” she says. “We may even assume that others don’t think there is a problem but in truth we all know there is a problem.”

With 97 percent of climate scientists and a majority of the American public believing that climate change is happening, social psychologists are investigating why the topic still engenders so much controversy and debate. Two new sets of research being presented at the SPSP conference in Austin this February suggest that powerful psychological phenomena underlie climate skepticism and that simple steps such as word choice – “climate change” versus “global warming” – and just speaking up in general can make a big difference when it comes to the climate discussion.

Unwinding the spiral of silence

Before people talk about a controversial topic, they will look for cues about whether they people they are talking with share their opinions. “If they believe that others disagree with their opinion, they are more likely to avoid discussing that topic,” says Nathan Geiger of Penn State University. “In turn, if most people don’t discuss their opinion, this leads people to believe that others must not hold this opinion.” In this “spiral of silence,” people then remain quiet on a topic because they think that no one agrees with them, even if that is not true.

For climate change in particular, despite consensus in the scientific community, the media often presents the topic as controversial by featuring fringe views, either because these views are held by prominent personalities or to try to be more objective. But, Geiger says, that this “can lead to the false perception that climate denial is common among scientists and the public.”

In a a set of three new studies, Geiger and Swim found that people are reticent to talk about climate change because they underestimate other people’s interest in the topic. In one of the studies, they asked groups of participants to answer questions via an electronic clicker about how concerned they were about climate change, but then showed results fabricated to change their perceptions of what the rest of the group thought. “We told half of the classrooms that most other people were concerned about climate change and the other half that most other people were not concerned,” Geiger says.

Those who were told that most other people were not concerned about climate change were subsequently less likely to discuss the topic in small break-out groups. Additionally, the researchers asked participants: “If you decided to discuss climate change, how likely do you think that the other group members would perceive you as having the following characteristics?” They then rated perceived competence and likeability, as well as being considered a complainer, an environmentalist, or an alarmist. Those who expected to appear less competent were less willing to discuss climate change.

So what can we do to break the spiral of silence? “Research has shown that people are heavily influenced by what the people in charge of our country say in public. Therefore, something important policy-makers can do is to publicly express their concern about climate change,” Geiger says.

And for the media? “To be more objective, the media could examine actual disagreements within the scientific community, such as will the Arctic sea ice melt in the next 10 years or will it take 40 years?”

“The take-home message for Americans who are concerned about climate change is that if you make an effort to talk about climate change more often, you will likely be surprised by how many others share your view and were remaining silent because they thought no one else cared.”

Framing climate change

Psychologists have known for a long time that how you frame an argument is crucial to how people view it. When it comes to climate change, the language has shifted over the years from “global warming” to “climate change.”

Still, among partisans and in the media, the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. “Though seemingly trivial, previous research gave us reason to suspect that these different frames would affect public perceptions,” says Jonathon Schuldt of Cornell University. “We sought to determine whether the public was more skeptical about ‘global warming’ than ‘climate change’ and to explore some of the possible mechanisms through which this effect might occur.”

Several new experiments tested this effect, looking at differences among Republicans and Democrats, as well as how weather cues affect our beliefs. For example, in a survey experiment, a majority of Republicans report believing that the phenomenon is really happening when it is framed as “climate change.” At the same time, a majority of Republicans doubt the phenomenon’s existence when it is framed as “global warming.” In contrast, Schuldt says, “the beliefs of Democrats were completely unaffected by these terms.”

“Complementing many previous studies in psychology and communication, these findings suggest that citizens do not always process information evenhandedly,” he says. “Rather, they sometimes seem to interpret the same information through partisan lenses that lead them to very different conclusions.”

Indeed, partisans often take advantage of this bias. Schuldt’s team has found that liberal think tanks are more likely to use a “climate change” frame whereas conservative think tanks are more likely to use a “global warming” frame. There is reason for optimism, though: “When the issue is framed in terms of ‘climate change,’ the belief gap between liberals and conservatives shrinks substantially,” he says.

In another set of experiments, Schuldt and colleagues tested whether making people think about cold weather – “priming” them for it – would reduce belief in the existence of “global warming” but not “climate change.” The researchers asked Cornell undergraduates to “evaluate photos for a campus calendar.” Regardless of the experimental condition, participants evaluated the same three photographs of the Cornell campus. To prime cold weather, the researchers tagged a snowy campus scene with the month of April.

Subsequently, ostensibly as part of an unrelated task, participants completed a questionnaire about political attitudes. They found that the cold weather priming led to a reduced belief in “global warming,” but not “climate change,” among students, especially those with low environmental concern

Therefore, using a frame of “climate change” helps diminish the confusion people sometimes have between weather (daily events) and climate (long-term changes in weather). Says Schuldt: “It’s easy for skeptics to criticize ‘global warming’ during a cold snap, and so ‘climate change’ may be a better frame for those seeking more progressive environmental policies.”

Schuldt and Geiger will present their research in the symposium S-F9, “The Sociality of Sustainability: How (and When) Groups Impact Environmental Cognition and Behavior,” at the SPSP annual conference in Austin on Saturday, February 15, 2014.


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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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