Climate Change, Psychology, Communication: Part 3 - Make the Message Concrete

Part 3 of the Climate Change, Psychology, and Communication Series for effective communication Step 1 is to know your audience. Step 2 is to frame your message accordingly. Step 3 is to make the message concrete. When discussing climate change, the people in the know (climate change researchers, climate change campaigners, and regular citizens concerned over climate change) tend to convey the alarm of climate change consequences with the data in mind. Five degrees increase. The amount of carbon dioxide is exponential. If we added six billion panels in the desert. They then ask people to look at the data themselves! Numbers and data require interpretation skills that even those in the know have difficulty dealing with.

If you take it from the perspective of evolutionary psychology there was no point point in learning symbols and their interpretation if there was a large predator that would kill you if you stopped to draw your thoughts on a stone wall. Back in those times we were focused on survival. Now that we've evolved beyond that we had time to develop data interpretation, which is relatively new in our millions of years of brain evolution (see cerebral cortex). The authors describe two brain processing systems: " the experiential processing system, which controls survival behavior and is the source of emotions and instincts (e.g., feeding, fighting, fleeing); and the analytical processing system, which controls analysis of scientific information" (CRED, 2010). They suggest that the most compelling way to convey climate change and cause action is by speaking to the experiential processing system and make the message concrete. Get back to the basics (in brain evolution), and make the message something that everyone can interpret quickly and easily.

Get back to the basics means use a picture. Pictures and visuals are how we learn 70% of the time, how we take in information on just about anything, including climate change. Without visuals you end up like that sophomore in the front row of a literature lecture, bored and zoned out. Don't just use a graph! Use something that makes sense to people, something they've tangibly (touch) experienced. When I talk about carbon emissions and parts per million, I use the example of a glass of water. 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide is comprised in the atmosphere, the worry is that around 400-500 parts per million and our quality of life on this planet really decreases. Now, I say consider your drinking water. Say 350 parts per million of rat poison is exposed to your water supply, would you want to drink it? For an even greater in depth perspective on making your message concrete, see chapter 3 of Made to Stick, a 2007 book by the Heath brothers.

Climate change effects, carbon emissions graphs, energy efficiency percentages, any and all sorts of data. However, none of it is concrete in your mind. It's all abstractions and symbolic of something, but that added step of interpretation may lose a lot of people.  A good picture that conveys the same message in one snapshot is much easier to learn with vs. a 60 page article on climate change effects (believe me, I've been there - you don't want to be there, so just keep reading up on climate change here ;-).

Reference: Shome, D. & Marx, S. (2010) "The Psychology of Climate Change Communication" Columbia University.

Photo Credit: Roland