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The vicious cycle that makes people afraid to talk about climate change


If you want to understand why it is that on a planet wracked by climate change, people still don’t talk much about climate change, then this may be the key: They’re people.

Or, more specifically, they’re evolved social mammals who are acutely attuned to how they are perceived by the other evolved social mammals around them — and reasonably so, because those perceptions greatly influence their own lives.

Such is the upshot of new research on why people “self-silence” when it comes to climate change, just published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology by Nathaniel Geiger and Janet Swim of Penn State University. In a nutshell, Geiger and Swim find that people are often afraid to talk about climate change with their peers because they wrongly think those peers are more doubtful about climate change than they actually are. This incorrect perception — which the authors dub “pluralistic ignorance” — then makes people fear that others will think they’re less competent, and thus, view them with less respect, if they bring up the subject or talk about it.

And then, that cascades and suppresses interpersonal conversations that might otherwise help put the issue more on the agenda. “There potentially can be this kind of spiral, where people are silent because they don’t know what other people think and people don’t know what other people think because nobody’s talking about it,” says Geiger, a PhD student in the Psychology Department at Penn State.

This isn’t the first time the concept of “pluralistic ignorance” has been studied. For instance, in the 1970s, research showed that although a majority of Americans opposed racial segregation, they also wrongly believed that a majority of Americans supported it.

As for self-silencing because you think you’re in the minority — this, too, is a phenomenon that has been widely studied in the context of psychological examinations of prejudice. Those encountering racial or gender-related biases, this literature suggests, often fail to confront those holding (and, sometimes, loudly articulating) biased views for this reason.

“Let’s say you’re somewhere and someone says something just really sexist, or really racist,” Geiger says. “Are you going to call them out on it? And a lot of times people don’t speak up, because they don’t realize that most people share their views.”

What’s novel, though, is detecting a somewhat analogous process at play in the climate debate.

In the new study, Geiger and Swim first simply go about demonstrating that pluralistic ignorance does exist on the climate issue. And at least in their sample of college students, it certainly does. The researchers found that although a majority of Penn State students were indeed on the climate-concerned end of the spectrum, only 30 percent were actually aware of this truth about how their peers think and feel.

In two subsequent studies, the researchers went on to demonstrate that this inaccurate perception of one’s peers influenced whether an individual student felt comfortable talking about climate change.

In the first study, 305 students — all of whom had previously identified themselves as believing in and being worried about climate change — were asked to think about being in a situation where they were working on a group project in English class at the library. After working for a while, the “topic of the weather comes up,” the experimental materials told the students. “You are thinking about bringing up how climate change may be affecting the current weather.”

Students then answered questions about what they thought other students believed on climate change, and how they would feel if they brought it up – specifically, what they thought others would think of them. Sure enough, those who thought there were lots of climate doubters among their peers were less comfortable talking about the subject, and the reason was that they “expected to appear less competent” when doing so. But students who more accurately recognized the nature of opinion around them were less inhibited.

“The more an individual’s perception diverges from the reality that others share their concern about climate change, the more hesitant they may be to speak up,” the authors conclude.

The second experiment reinforced the finding. In this case, students weren’t simply surveyed — they were in a classroom with a group of peers, and were told that they were going to into groups and talk about climate change. This probably made fears about how they would be perceived even more real.

Moreover, this time around, before the discussion, the experimenter displayed a chart purporting to show what people in the room thought about the issue. But this was actually a key experimental manipulation: Sometimes, the chart showed that there was strong concern about climate change — and sometimes, it showed the opposite.

Sure enough, students in experimental condition in which participants were informed that those in the room were strongly concerned about climate change felt more comfortable talking about it. And furthermore, this was because, the study found, “participants expected that others would perceive them as more competent in the discussion when they believed others shared their opinions.”

Geiger adds that although the research looked only at relatively liberal students at Penn State University, in other parts of the country — such as, say, states that are suing to block the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan — the self-silencing is likely to be considerably more powerful.

This research, of course, also implies a way to stop self-silencing — namely, give people more accurate perceptions of how those around them think. So it stands to reason that hearing more people speak out about climate change — in politics, in marches and demonstrations, and much else — might help make more people speak out about climate change.

“If you get people talking, you might be able to get rid of the pluralistic ignorance,” Geiger says.