Framing the Issue: Conservation Efforts

Lyme disease tickKey Takeaways:

  • The framing that surrounds a message matters. Subtle effects in the message can have larger effects in the response.
  • Temporal effects matter. Putting an environmental issue in the future rallies more support among skeptics, dodging their motivated skepticism.
  • Labels matter. Global warming has more support among likely skeptics if the cues imply warming and heating. Global climate change is more supportive when the cues are incongruent.
  • There is no panacea. These are all comparisons. Future tense can be more supported than present, warming more than climate change. It’s not that some labels are “better”, but context plays a huge role in how a
    message is received.

Frames are important. They’re not the whole painting or piece, but they affect the whole perception of it. The wrong frame can clash with the art and take away from the aesthetic. While the right frame can make it greater than the sum of its parts and click together the entire visual message.

The same goes for environmental issues. Framing isn’t everything, but it’s important. Very subtle messages can have large effects. No matter what you call global warming, it doesn’t change the severity of it. But it matters both what you label it and how you frame it. Even things like emphasizing the future instead the future, or calling something global climate change instead of warming.

A suite of three studies asked how we can better communicate about environment, with an eye towards appealing to the a large public audience that may be split on certain issues. And the public can be stratified by one value of interest in particular, so-called (self-reported) biospheric values. Biospheric values are simply what your values and beliefs are about environmental and animal issues – things that affect the biosphere. Biospheric values are a good predictor of how one feels about conservation and how likely any given person to support environmental efforts.

The studies seeks to emphasize and acknowledge human responsibility which should, in turn, promote conservation as a result. The idea of human responsibility should inspire, well, human responsibility. But that doesn’t always happen.

As much as you can try to emphasize human responsibility to public, it’s hard to appeal to the skeptics with low biospheric values). The idea is emphasizing human responsibility should appeal to human behaviors and increase conservation, but it often fails to bring about the desired result. For whatever reason, these messages are not persuasive to the skeptics, who should matter the most, and may even backfire. It’s worth looking at suite of three studies in succession and trying to parse out why and how to curtail this.

One study emphasized health risks from diseases like lyme disease and chronic wasting disease (CWD), which are all related to environmental issues and involve human, environmental, and animal factors.

The first study, an online survey like the others, polled respondents about issues that may seem animal made but emphasize human responsibility. Those environmental skeptics were unfazed. For the skeptics with low biospheric values, it was like they didn’t even receive the message. The first study did not show any persuasive effects.

So onto the importance of framing. The second study, which was a national representation sample, attempted to curtail this trend by some subtle changes. The authors decided to put a time distance between the environment issues and the present. Instead of emphasizing the need for human action *now* and how dire the situation is, the message emphasized action ten years from now. This time gap seemed to overcome the low biospheric value and actually inspire those skeptics to show some positive conservation behaviors and intentions. It seemed this time distance allowed the message to short-circuit their motivated skepticism. It’s almost like saying “we need to do something about this, but it’s not your fault.” It allowed the skeptics to think of the message less concretely and respond more positively. Mostly the same message, but different results.

The third study looked to further tease out some findings about these environmental skeptics. This time the authors focused on politics (every transaction is political), and looking for negative effects. Those respondents who identified themselves as Republicans, when fa ced with the message about Lyme Disease that emphasized human responsibility in the here and now, they counter-intuitively respond negatively to the message. Exactly the effect that you’d want to avoid. Without the message, there was no negative effect – there was no difference between democrats and republicans. So clearly, how you frame the issue and the time frame is extremely important.

Very subtle cues can shift opinions. Climate change can inspire more support if the events in question don’t fit the traditional maladies associated with global warming (i.e. cold things), but the message is we have to be aware and vigilant of our labeling. Since you can’t always deliver messages set ten years in the future to people when they’re on a ferry in the great Pacific Northwest, its important to be aware. The same message can be received differently depending on if you’re in middle of a snow storm in Ithaca or sweltering in Arizona.


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