I really like being right. Chances are you do too, because we humans are psychologically inclined to seek out evidence that suggests we’re right. We tend to interpret neutral information in our favor and contrary information as flawed. These related tendencies are often referred to as confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is inevitable, and it colors how every one of us sees the world. If I’ve just received an email from a student asking me to bump their grade up so they can get into med school, I might start grumbling to myself about my lazy students. Then as I’m ruminating on lazy students, I might interpret the next student’s well-intentioned question as a manipulative attempt to score higher on the exam. In other words, I may interpret this latter interaction as confirming my feeling that arose from the prior one — the students’ laziness — even if the second student wasn’t lazy or manipulative at all.
Confirmation bias can, in part, explain why there are still way too many parents who don’t have their children vaccinated. Once they believe that vaccines might be harmful for their children, they seek evidence to confirm that belief — for example, clinging to the very small percentage of people who do have adverse reactions to vaccines. Even an overwhelming amount of data demonstrating the benefits of vaccines and the fact that the vaccines-and-autism rumors started from completely fraudulent “science” will not persuade this person. They’ve chosen which evidence to believe and which to discard, even if they don’t necessarily see it as a conscious choice.
An audience’s confirmation bias can be extremely frustrating for science communicators. It can make it feel like communication attempts are futile, since some members will already have their mind made up, and will interpret new information through the lens of their current belief.
But successful science communication is not just a process of information transmission. The idea that the public just hasn’t received enough science info, and that they’ll hold more pro-science beliefs and make more pro-science decisions is incredibly misguided. Confirmation bias illustrates why heaping information on people will not change minds if they have contrary beliefs they seek to confirm. I’ve written about this before, and so havemanyothergreatwriters.
For science communicators: Your audience is going to have cognitive biases. It’s important not to let your awareness of their biases color how you think of the people you’re communicating with. In fact, if you start to characterize your audience as stubborn or irrational because their biases act as obstacles to accepting the science you want to share, you are falling prey to yet another cognitive bias — a fundamental attribution error, or a correspondence bias. This bias plays out when we attribute someone else’s behaviors to their personality (for example, they’re not understanding my science because they’re irrational) more than we would attribute our own behaviors to our personalities.
Remember, you, too, have cognitive biases. Although at times those biases might drive you to make stubborn or irrational conclusions, you probably don’t think of yourself as a stubborn or irrational person. Instead, you might recognize that your unique background and your current circumstances have led you to make biased decisions. Acting stubborn in a certain context does not necessarily make you a stubborn person. We must remember this is true, even when we’re communicating with seemingly stubborn people.
So when you’re communicating, recognize that your audience has cognitive biases — this part, I think, is not too hard. What’s more difficult is to also recognize that you have cognitive biases. No real communication can happen until you do this — until you acknowledge that your audience is comprised of human beings, all of whom have wonderfully complex cognitive baggage, just like you.
We humans have collectively accumulated a lot of science knowledge. We’ve developed vaccines that can eradicate some of the most devastating diseases. We’ve engineered bridges and cities and the internet. We’ve created massive metal vehicles that rise tens of thousands of feet and then safely set down on the other side of the globe. And this is just the tip of the iceberg (which, by the way, we’ve discovered is melting). While this shared knowledge is impressive, it’s not distributed evenly. Not even close. There are too many important issues that science has reached a consensus on that the public has not.
A common intuition is that the main goal of science communication is to present facts; once people encounter those facts, they will think and behave accordingly. The National Academies’ recent report refers to this as the “deficit model.”
But in reality, just knowing facts doesn’t necessarily guarantee that one’s opinions and behaviors will be consistent with them. For example, many people “know” that recycling is beneficial but still throw plastic bottles in the trash. Or they read an online article by a scientist about the necessity of vaccines, but leave comments expressing outrage that doctors are trying to further a pro-vaccine agenda. Convincing people that scientific evidence has merit and should guide behavior may be the greatest science communication challenge, particularly in our “post-truth” era.
Luckily, we know a lot about human psychology – how people perceive, reason and learn about the world – and many lessons from psychology can be applied to science communication endeavors.
Consider human nature
Regardless of your religious affiliation, imagine that you’ve always learned that God created human beings just as we are today. Your parents, teachers and books all told you so. You’ve also noticed throughout your life that science is pretty useful – you especially love heating up a frozen dinner in the microwave while browsing Snapchat on your iPhone.
One day you read that scientists have evidence for human evolution. You feel uncomfortable: Were your parents, teachers and books wrong about where people originally came from? Are these scientists wrong? You experience cognitive dissonance – the uneasiness that results from entertaining two conflicting ideas.
One way we subconsciously avoid cognitive dissonance is through confirmation bias – a tendency to seek information that confirms what we already believe and discard information that doesn’t.
This human tendency was first exposed by psychologist Peter Wason in the 1960s in a simple logic experiment. He found that people tend to seek confirmatory information and avoid information that would potentially disprove their beliefs.
The concept of confirmation bias scales up to larger issues, too. For example, psychologists John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky asked people about their beliefs concerning global warming and then gave them information stating that 97 percent of scientists agree that human activity causes climate change. The researchers measured whether the information about the scientific consensus influenced people’s beliefs about global warming.
Those who initially opposed the idea of human-caused global warming became even less accepting after reading about the scientific consensus on the issue. People who had already believed that human actions cause global warming supported their position even more strongly after learning about the scientific consensus. Presenting these participants with factual information ended up further polarizing their views, strengthening everyone’s resolve in their initial positions. It was a case of confirmation bias at work: New information consistent with prior beliefs strengthened those beliefs; new information conflicting with existing beliefs led people to discredit the message as a way to hold on to their original position.
Overcoming cognitive biases
How can science communicators share their messages in a way that leads people to change their beliefs and actions about important science issues, given our natural cognitive biases?
The first step is to acknowledge that every audience has preexisting beliefs about the world. Expect those beliefs to color the way they receive your message. Anticipate that people will accept information that is consistent with their prior beliefs and discredit information that is not.
Then, focus on framing. No message can contain all the information available on a topic, so any communication will emphasize some aspects while downplaying others. While it’s unhelpful to cherry-pick and present only evidence in your favor – which can backfire anyway – it is helpful to focus on what an audience cares about.
For example, these University of California researchers point out that the idea of climate change causing rising sea levels may not alarm an inland farmer dealing with drought as much as it does someone living on the coast. Referring to the impact our actions today may have for our grandchildren might be more compelling to those who actually have grandchildren than to those who don’t. By anticipating what an audience believes and what’s important to them, communicators can choose more effective frames for their messages – focusing on the most compelling aspects of the issue for their audience and presenting it in a way the audience can identify with.
In addition to the ideas expressed in a frame, the specific words used matter. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman first showed when numerical information is presented in different ways, people think about it differently. Here’s an example from their 1981 study:
Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is ⅓ probability that 600 people will be saved, and ⅔ probability that no people will be saved.
Both programs have an expected value of 200 lives saved. But 72 percent of participants chose Program A. We reason about mathematically equivalent options differently when they’re framed differently: Our intuitions are often not consistent with probabilities and other math concepts.
Metaphors can also act as linguistic frames. Psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky found that people who read that crime is a beast proposed different solutions than those who read that crime is a virus – even if they had no memory of reading the metaphor. The metaphors guided people’s reasoning, encouraging them to transfer solutions they’d propose for real beasts (cage them) or viruses (find the source) to dealing with crime (harsher law enforcement or more social programs).
The words we use to package our ideas can drastically influence how people think about those ideas.
We have a lot to learn. Quantitative research on the efficacy of science communication strategies is in its infancy but becoming an increasing priority. As we continue to untangle more about what works and why, it’s important for science communicators to be conscious of the biases they and their audiences bring to their exchanges and the frames they select to share their messages.
A team of researchers representing a range of academic departments across most of the schools in the University of California (UC) system recently published a chapter summarizing what we know about efforts to communicate climate disruption and how we can improve on them. It’s full of useful information (especially in the tables, which include things like common climate myths vs. facts and existing communication programs in the UC system). An overarching theme that I’ll focus on is that framing matters.
What’s a frame?
Picture frames often enhance the image inside. Frames can draw attention to the parts of the image that lie inside them and obscure or detract from the parts that lie outside. Linguistic frames do the same thing. The chapter refers to framing as “an effective communication tool for drawing attention to, legitimizing, and providing an interpretive context for abstract, complex, or unfamiliar information” (p. 9). For example, one person might frame a medical procedure by saying that it has a 70% success rate, while another might frame that same procedure as having a 30% failure rate. Although they both reflect the same information, each highlights something different — either success or failure — and psychology research has shown that in many instances, people reason differently when they encounter different frames for the same idea. Truly complex concepts like climate change can’t be communicated without framing, because it’s impossible for a communication to portray everything imaginable that’s known about a topic without highlighting some information and downplaying others.
The power and ubiquity of framing show us that facts alone are not enough. Frames used to communicate about climate disruption need to be selected conscientiously in order to give people a sense of why they should care about the issue and what they personally can do about it. Climate change can be framed by highlighting the human health issues it creates, the economic gains that can be realized by addressing it, or effects on local versus global levels. Climate change can also be framed using images.
This image makes me think, damn, we need to save the Earth. If that one didn’t work for you, maybe this one will:
Considerations for Frames
There is no one-size-fits all frame for motivating people to care about and act on climate change. Instead, communicators need to know their audience and anticipate the audience’s reaction to different messages. Tailoring frames for specific audiences becomes even more challenging when audiences are culturally diverse (a very notable point, since the authors are all from California, the most populous and diverse state). But it’s a challenge worth taking up. In the state of CA, for example, a message about rising sea levels may impact someone living on the coast more than someone living inland in an area affected by drought. Anticipating what matters to an audience can help communicators choose the most appropriate frames.
Religion provides an additional opportunity for framing. The major world religions emphasize humans’ responsibility to care for their natural world, and religious leaders have begun explicitly urging their followers to take this message seriously in the context of climate change. Unlike religion, climate change is often associated with political beliefs (almost half of Republicans are skeptical of climate change while just over 10% of Democrats are). In order to get more people to acknowledge the gravity of climate change and the actions we need to take to prevent disaster, communicators should focus on reducing the political divide on the issue, for example having prominent Republican groups and “opinion leaders,” people who have clout in their communities (such as Bible study or PTA leaders), speak about the urgency of addressing global warming.
Economics and business frames are also important to hone. Many people currently see addressing climate change as bringing about job losses, but in reality job prospects in the renewable energy sector are greater than those for traditional energy sources. Communicators need to emphasize these facts as well as highlighting the major companies that are already committed to improving energy practices.
Climate change is one of the most contentious issues nationally (and globally, at least in places where people have even heard of it), and communicating any controversial issue presents challenges (the subject of a chapter in the National Academy of Science’s guide for effective science communication, which I summarized previously). Adequately addressing climate change may involve more scientific innovations, legislation, and a lot of behavior changes… but we won’t get there if we don’t also focus on communicating the gravity of the issue and what can be done about it.
The National Academy of Science published a thorough (127-page) guide for communicating science effectively, with a detailed description of what the science of science communication has already revealed, but more importantly, with an agenda for the future of research on this topic. It’s long but useful, so I’ve broken it down into an abridged guide. Yesterday I posted my distillation of chapter 1, and today’s focus is chapter 2.
Chapter 2: The complexities of communicating science
Public engagement: seeking and facilitating the sharing and exchange of knowledge, perspectives, and preferences between or among groups who often have differences in expertise, power, and values
Public engagement is important for goals of generating excitement, sharing info needed for a decision, and finding common ground on an issue among diverse stakeholders.
Challenges posed by scientific content
Uncertainty. People generally dislike uncertainty and avoid ambiguity. As a result, it might seem like avoiding talking about the uncertainty inherent in science will be a productive way to communicate. However, avoiding discussion of uncertainty is a problem too, since it creates a false sense of certainty among people, and if (or when) new findings arise that require original information to be revised, people are likely to lose trust in the communicators. So far, presenting relevant narratives seems to be an effective way to engage audience with scientific issues, helping them to remember and process the information, but we need more research on the role of narratives for communicating science and on broader best practices for communicating scientific uncertainty.
Different audiences, different needs
Aspects of audiences that affect science communication help explain why the same information can be understood very differently by different people:
Prior knowledge of science
Plus, scientific knowledge alone doesn’t necessarily lead to holding positive attitudes toward science. Instead, someone’s characteristics, background, values and beliefs, and the information they receive from the media all influence the role their scientific knowledge has on their attitudes.
Ability to understand numeric information
When communication strategies rely on quantities, rates, or probabilities and they take into account that people (including scientists, particularly when the issue is outside their area of expertise) struggle to make sense of numeric information, they are often more successful than just presenting the numbers. In health communications, at least, the following strategies have proven helpful:
Don’t avoid the numbers – provide them.
Reduce the cognitive effort required by the consumer
Explain what the numbers mean
Draw attention to important information
Ways of interpreting new information
Everyone has their own beliefs about that way the world works, and these beliefs play prominent roles in making sense of new information. We also rely heavily on mental shortcuts when we encounter new information:
Heuristics: We often believe information that is consistent with our preexisting beliefs and information that we encounter more often than inconsistent and less frequently encountered info.
Emotion: Our initial emotional reactions to new information can shape the way we continue to think about that information, and some research suggests that we tend to pay more attention to negative than positive information.
Motivated reasoning: We’re biased to make sense of information in a way that is consistent with our immediately accessible beliefs and feelings.
Cognitive dissonance: we’re able to hold two conflicting thoughts, but that often makes us feel uncomfortable, and we try to resolve that conflict for ourselves. If you really love Big Macs, for example, and you also know that health professionals say Big Macs are not good for you, you might feel some dissonance. You can either change your behavior (stop eating Big Macs) or justify your behavior by tweaking your belief (well, I walked into the restaurant instead of using the drive thru, so I got my exercise and can probably have the Big Mac OR well, those scientists are studying mice so really, does that apply to me? OR well, I’m poor and a Big Mac is cheap OR, or, or…).
Presenting information in different forms
The way we present information affects the way it’s received.
Framing is used when information is presented in one way to influence how people interpret it. When issues are communicated about in terms of being a priority or a problem, or when specific causes and solutions are focused on, the issue is being framed. Framing is an inherent part of persuasion and communication about complex topics: You can’t possibly present an issue in its entirety, so a communicator must decide what to highlight and what to downplay. When frames are relevant to the way a person already thinks about the world, they’re most likely to be influential.
Gain/loss framing: A 70% success rate and a 30% failure rate are mathematically the same, but depending on the context, may actually influence people in different ways. However, whether framing an issue in terms of potential gains or potential losses influences people more seems to vary based on the issue at hand, so we need more research to understand when each framing is most beneficial.
Emphasis framing: Complex issues are often presented as story lines that suggest different trains of thought, which in turn emphasize some features of an issue over others. In particular, scientific information is often presented in terms of personalized stories (episodes) or more generally (themes). Again, the issue at hand determines how productive emphasizing episodes vs. themes will be, so we need more research.
Trust and credibility of science communication
People primarily rely on different social information to figure out what and whom they believe about scientific issues:
Having common interests, in that the communicator and the audience both want the same outcome from the communication
This point relates to the earlier points on the ways we encounter new information. When scientific information conflicts with someone’s political ideology, they might not only reject the information, but their trust in the communicator might also decline.
Perceived expertise which is not equivalent to a communicator’s actual expertise.
Applying the lessons of large-scale science communication efforts
It’s important for audiences to receive sufficient exposure (aka, a lot) to information so that it can reach enough of the target audience and bring about change.
Communication that’s provided before people form strong opinions on a topic is likely to be more educational than communication after, so timing matters. It can be helpful to expose people early to counterarguments for the misinformation they may eventually receive, as a way of “inoculating” them from misinformation.
Duration is also crucial: “long-term and comprehensive approaches” will likely be successful and necessary for communication goals. Isolated attempts are not enough.
An overall theme of this chapter is that because of the many complexities of communicating science, “…an effective science communication strategy will be iterative and adaptable… it will evolve over time based on lessons learned about what is and is not working, as well as shifting needs and opportunities.” (p. 35)
Tomorrow I’ll post a condensed guide to Chapter 3: The Nature of Science-Related Public Controversies.