Wednesday, January 30, 2013

SWAG: The World is ending and that's unfair!
Every Wednesday afternoon, I gather with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week's seminar, affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG).

Ever watch a video like this one? I imagine that for different people it activates very different emotions. For some, this sort of video might galvanize people, strengthening resolve for reducing their carbon footprint. For others, however, it might be a very threatening video to watch, a video that could potentially challenge some of your deeply held assumptions about the world being a fair and safe place.

Psychologist Matt Feinberg and sociologist Robb Willer wondered if dire messages about global warming might actually increase skepticism towards the mere existence of climate change among certain individuals in society. They argue that for some people, the inevitable ending of the human race due to climate change conflicts with beliefs that the world is fair and just--that good things happen to good people. Thus, individuals with very strong beliefs that the world is just might even show reactance to dire messages about global warming--and might subsequently come to deny climate change more.

This is more or less what they found in two studies (Feinberg & Willer, 2011). In the first study, participants read a dire message or a hopeful message--that the world could recover--about global warming, filled out a personality measure about their beliefs in a just world, and then subsequently rated their skepticism about the existence of global warming. As expected, people high in just world beliefs were more skeptical about climate change if they watched the dire message about global warming relative to the hopeful message.

In a second study, just world beliefs were manipulated in a sentence unscramble task--where participants unscrambled some sentences that delivered messages suggesting that the world is fair. Following this priming task, participants watched a video showing dire messages about global warming and then subsequently filled out attitude measures about the environment. Participants manipulated to receive just world belief sentences tended to be more skeptical about global warming and less likely to want to reduce their carbon footprint.

The SWAG group had several reactions to the paper. I think we all found the topic to be an interesting one. We collectively wondered whether just world beliefs correlate strongly with political conservatism and if that perhaps it is conservative ideology that is the primary influence on the way people deny global warming messages. We also wondered whether dire messages about global warming--because they are basically fear messages--might actually be effective if they are also paired with information about how to make change in support of saving the environment, as prior research on fear appeals suggests (e.g., Witte & Allen, 2000). How do dire messages about global warming effect you?

Also, we had donuts and they were delicious! Tune in next week to read about the potential dark side of self-affirmation!

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2010). Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs Psychological Science, 22 (1), 34-38 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610391911


  1. Many people recall from high school learning the world was warmer in the past & see we humans managed to come through.
    The premise that global warming is some modern apocalyptic doom is not logical to many who grew up being exposed to media pitches. ("Don't believe the hype" is an educated consumer's reminder to think for oneself.)

    1. True about thinking for oneself, but the evidence for climate change at its current trajectory is pretty worrisome--if it continues unchecked.