Monday, November 29, 2010

Global Warming and 'Over-Resonance'

11.16.2010 - Dire messages about global warming can backfire, new study shows

A study from UC Berkeley appears to prove the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann: that dire warnings about ecological disasters, such as global warming, can cause "over-resonance", i.e. a reactive state that actually backfires and undermines an adequate response to the crisis.

Luhmann's Ecological Communication (1989) proposes that social systems lack the capacity to accurately perceive environmental conditions. The usual response of society to environment is "under-resonance," i.e. the social system does not recognize problems in the environment, or just barely. However, when economic, political and scientific systems present information about ecological crisis in an alarming way, it causes social "over-resonance," an "effect-explosion" in which paradoxically, social systems become paralyzed and unable to respond effectively to the problem.

The study from U. C. Berkeley found that when facts about global warming were reported in an alarming way to subjects, they indicated that they doubted the veracity of the report, even among those whose ideals of a "just world" were fairly high. Furthermore, the overwhelmed subjects were less likely to take corrective action to address the problem.

Conversely, when subjects were presented with the same facts on global warming but provided with possible solutions, subjects were more likely to indicate that they believed in the veracity of the report and that they would modify their behaviour to address the problem.


  1. The press release is misleading. You should actually read the materials provided to the subjects who participated in the "article" portion of the study - the core "article" read by all was quite dire, speaking of floods, fires, agricultural disruption, etc. The difference was not that one group saw a more "moderate" article, rather only the ending was different with one group seeing a frankly hopeless ending ("science has no idea how to deal with this disaster") and the other seeing an ending that proposed solutions. The results are therefore much more nuanced than your post suggests.

  2. I haven't read the article. But, based on the press release, I'm not someone who would put a lot of stock in the outcome. I don't find the conclusions drawn from that type of psychological research particularly compelling.

    That said, I think there is something to the basic point. My sense from the opinion poll data is that a certain (comparatively small) portion of the audience will respond to apocalyptic messages by expressing more concern or raising the significance they give to a problem (i.e., you can affect their attitudes). But if you want action, you're much better to offer people optimism and hope.

    This certainly is the conclusion an acquaintance of mine has drawn. After 20 years in the trenches -- at Rio, Kyoto and a variety of others as a high level activist -- she's decided that messages based on fear won't work and is now attempting to develop a more optimistic way to package the climate change message.

  3. This is what the press release said (I don't have access to the actual study. If you do, please provide the link here.):

    "Next, participants read a news article about global warming. The article started out with factual data provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change.

    But while half the participants received articles that ended with warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming,

    the other half read ones that concluded with positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions.

    This statement would imply that both groups were presented the same set of facts, but that one group read "articles" (plural) that concluded the facts were apocalyptic, for which there were no solutions, while the other group read the "ones" (plural) that 'concluded with positive messages and focused on solutions.'

    If that is not how the study was actually designed, then you're right, the press release is false.

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