Research Summary

Communicating climate science: The role of perceived communicator’s motives

Perceived Motives of Scientists Affect Believability of Climate Science

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Much research in climate change science communication has focused on how the construction of the message—such as the words and the framing—affects the recipient’s understanding, acceptance, and willingness to act on the information. This paper reported on two studies that take a different approach, looking instead at the perceptions a recipient has about the role of the person communicating the message.

The first study looked specifically at how the perceived agendas of scientists, either to simply inform or to persuade toward a particular action, affected the recipient’s trust of scientists and willingness to act in line with the climate change message. Participants included 14 men and 43 women who averaged 28 years old. The researchers presented participants with one of two descriptions of climate scientists: In one description, the scientists’ primary function was to inform; in the other description, the scientists’ function was to persuade. The researchers then asked the participants to rate their agreement with the following two statements: “Most climate scientists believe that their aim is to provide impartial information” and “Most climate scientists believe that their aim is to persuade the public to take action.” Finally, the participants were asked to rate their trust in scientists and how likely they would be to participate in recommended environmental activities.

As expected, participants introduced to the inform description rated climate scientists’ primary goal as being to inform, and participants who were conditioned to choose persuade chose persuade as being the primary goal of scientists. Interestingly, those who had received the treatment that influenced them to choose inform also reported higher levels of willingness to participate in environmentally conscious actions than those who received the persuade treatment. When people perceived an intention to persuade, trust suffered. Although participants were not shown any actual data from climate scientists, the perceived hidden agendas influenced trust and intent to engage in environmental behaviors.

The second study was a follow-up of the first, and addressed the question of how the perceived motives of climate scientists influenced the response to different kinds of messages, specifically those written in an informative versus persuasive style. Research participants included 37 men and 77 women with an average age of 26. The participants were again divided into two groups and received the same treatment as the first study to manipulate their perceived bias towards scientists.

The participants were then asked to read a short text about the consequences of climate change that they were led to believe had been written by climate scientists. Half of each group in the first manipulation was asked to read an “informative text” about climate change, and half of each group was asked to read a “persuasive text” on the consequences of climate change, so that in the end there were four distinct treatment groups. The “informative text” was presented as a list of “Facts about Climate Change.” The “persuasive text” included the same list of facts, but with each fact preceded by a “fiction” statement that the fact then proved wrong. All participants were asked to rate whether they thought “the purpose of the article was to persuade people to take action on climate change” in order to make sure the text manipulation was successful. Finally, all participants were asked to complete a survey that tested measures of trust in climate scientists, environmental concern, and intention to engage in environmentally sustainable behavior.

The researchers found the response to the different styles of text was strongly linked to the participants’ expectations of the scientists’ communicative goals. The most effective communication occurred when the style of the text matched the participants’ expectations about scientists’ intentions. For example, participants who were conditioned to see the scientists’ role as to inform and read the “informative text” rated their environmental concern, trust in scientists, and intention to engage in environmental behavior higher than those who read the same text but expected that the scientists’ role was to persuade. The opposite was also true: Those expecting persuasive scientists were more responsive to the persuasive text.

The Bottom Line

Recipients of a message are more likely to trust the message and be willing to undertake environmentally conscious behaviors if the message from the climate scientist matches their expectations, whether that message is designed to persuade or inform. This study suggested that understanding public opinion about the role of scientists in communicating climate science is critical.