Past vs. Future Frames for Communicating Climate Change

Climate change (is it happening? how problematic is it? and are humans responsible?) is a partisan issue. Work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about before) shows that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that climate change is not a result of human activity and that if unchanged, it will not be as destructive as many people claim. Researchers Matthew Baldwin & Joris Lammers explore the possibility that partisan differences in beliefs about climate change might result from differences in the way conservatives and liberals tend to think about time (their temporal focus).

Their starting point was that previous research has shown that conservatives focus more on the past than liberals do. Then they tested two competing frames: one was future-focused (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”) and the other was past-focused (“Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”). Each participant read just one of these, and then reported their attitudes about climate change and the environment. They found that conservatives reported liking the past-focused message better than the future-focused one and also reported higher environmental attitudes after the past- compared to the future-focused frame.

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They replicated these findings in additional experiments with variations. For example, in one test, instead of using linguistic frames to draw attention to either the past or the future, they used satellite images, either showing a progression from the past to today or a forecasted progression from today to the future. Again, conservatives reported more proenvironmental attitudes after viewing past-focused images than future-focused ones.

Next they investigated the temporal focus that real environmental charities tend to use. Not surprisingly, they found that the charities’ messages disproportionately express future consequences, with less focus on the past. Following up on this, they presented participants with money that they could divide among two (fake) charities (one whose message was strongly past- and one whose message was strongly future-focused), or they could keep some or all of it. They saw each charity’s logo and mission statement (the past-focused one stated: “Restoring the planet to its original state” and the future one: “Creating a new Earth for the future”).

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Conservatives donated more to the past- than the future-oriented charity. Liberals did the opposite. Further, looking at just the past-oriented charity, conservatives donated more than liberals did. Looking just at the future-oriented one, the opposite pattern emerges. This is a very beautiful interaction (plus the researchers did a few other experiments with slightly varied methods and a meta-analysis, all of which add some weight to these findings).

Considering the finding that climate change communications rely heavily on future-focused appeals, these findings should really make us pause. Is it possible that climate change issues themselves may not actually be what divides conservatives and liberals so much, but instead the way they’re communicated might be driving much of the disagreement between them? My intuition is that framing is not entirely to blame for conservatives’ and liberals’ divergent beliefs about climate change, but this work shows that it may be a big part of the story. It certainly won’t hurt for communicators to start diversifying our temporal frames for discussing climate change.


For more consideration on this topic, see earlier posts: Climate change is a big problem and we need to find better ways of talking about it; Narratives for Communicating Climate Change; and The paradox of science communication and the new science to resolve it.

All figures from Baldwin, M. & Lammers, J. (2016) Past-focused environmental comparisons proenvironmental outcomes for conservatives. PNAS, 113(52), 14953-14957.

For a discussion of why the framing described in this paper might not be enough to change conservatives’ minds about climate change, see This one weird trick will not convince conservatives to fight climate change, by David Roberts for Vox.

Climate change is a big problem and we need to find better ways of talking about it

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.

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Pretty as a picture by Silvia Sala, CC

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.

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Atlas, it’s time for your bath by woodleywonderworks CC

This image makes me think, damn, we need to save the Earth. If that one didn’t work for you, maybe this one will:

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Polar bear by Arctic Wolf CC

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.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s put away our fight metaphors

Lately, as I’ve been scrolling through my Twitter newsfeed, I feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of metaphorical fighting going on in my tiny corner of the Internet. Of course the literal fighting is incredibly upsetting, particularly the recent rise in hate crimes permeating the U.S. and garnering media attention, but the figurative fighting is also jarring. If you go to your Facebook, Twitter, or social media feed of your choice, and search for the word fight, I feel pretty confident that you’ll come up with results, and that they won’t be about boxing matches or conflict in the Middle East.

A lot of these fight metaphors arise from positive intentions, encouragements to fight hatred and to fight for progress.

Barackobama.com says that “We’ve always known progress is hard, but that it’s worth fighting for — and now, more than ever, we’ve got to get fired up for the work ahead.”

A piece in the Huffington Post talks about how we can fight the “Trump Effect” (defined as the fear and anxiety that many children feel as a result of Trump’s rhetoric against different groups) in youth sports.

STAT reports on Choosing Scientific Sides in the Fight Against Alzheimer’s: Here it seems that the fight is both between scientists in favor of two competing hypotheses, as well as the general fight against the disease. (Some side speculation: since we talk about the immune system as defending the body and viruses as invading, I suspect that our tendency to talk about fighting diseases — from depression, to cancer, to obesity, and apparently Alzheimer’s — might originate from the immune system mental model, and has now generalized to diseases from which recovery doesn’t involve the immune system).

Many people are calling for recounts of votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, based on suspicion that the results may have been interfered with by foreign powers. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been urged to join the fight in demanding a recount, the Guardian reports.

It gets particularly meta when articles talk about fighting the fighting: George Soros is donating $10 million to combat the recent rise in hate crimes, Time reports.

The phrase fighting fire with fire feels particularly apt right now: there’s too much fighting, so let’s stop the fighting with a different kind of fighting.

These articles are a tiny subset of the many fight-encouraging articles that have cropped up in my news feeds. In fact, they’re just the ones I noticed over breakfast in one day (I eat slowly, but not that slowly). I didn’t even have to go looking for these metaphorical fights.

Are all these fight metaphors influencing our behavior?

It’s hard to know if fight metaphors are empowering people to take more action for good, doing things like standing up for “what’s right” and shutting down acts of hatred. It’s also hard to know if the metaphors are encouraging people to engage in violence and unnecessary confrontation. But there’s been an alarming amount of violence recently, and every instance adds more fire to everyone’s fires — which might make them more likely to drop even more fight metaphors. I accidentally stumbled upon an appropriate Vox article that shares advice for arguing better, acknowledging that Thanksgiving can give rise to arguments, so here’s how you can equip yourself to win them.

It seems to me we have a national case of fighting on the brain.

Of course I am speculating, providing cherry-picked anecdotal evidence from a sample size of one (myself). And of course, confrontation can be necessary, and it can be effective. I’m not advocating for abolishing fight metaphors. They might empower some people, but they also might encourage others to be violent. The context in which they’re used, the frame of mind a person is in, the prior experiences that person has had… these all matter when metaphors shape the way we think.

I hope on this Thanksgiving Day, and as we head into a holiday season, and soon begin a New Year, under leadership of a new U.S. President, that we think twice when using fight metaphors. They’re powerful things, and they should be used responsibly.

Words matter in the Presidential Debate

If there’s one thing this Presidential race and debate have reminded me of, it’s that everything is subjective. A few thoughts on the content of the first 2016 Presidential debate from a linguistically-inclined cognitive scientist:

  • America is a piggy bank

    You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They are devaluing their currency and there’s nobody in our government to fight them and we have a very good fight and we have a winning fight because they are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China and many other countries are doing the same thing. -Donald Trump

    If the US is truly a piggy bank, then China may have to smash us to pieces to get their money out. We should watch out.

  • Trump and Clinton argue over Trump’s statement that: You [Clinton] have regulations on top of regulations and new companies cannot form and old companies are going out of business and you want to increase the regulations and make them even worse.

    Clinton: I kind of assumed there would be a lot of these charges and claims and so –Trump: Facts.

    What you call a thing matters. Both candidates agree on that.

  • There’s been some innovative language use from both Clinton and Trump.

    Clinton defines her phrase “Trumped up trickle down”:

    And the kind of plan that Donald has put forth would be trickle down economics. It would be the most extreme version, the biggest tax cuts for the top percents of the people in this country that we’ve ever had. I call it trumped up trickle down because that’s exactly what it would be.

    Trump’s new word, bragadocious, needs no formal definition:

    I have a great company and I have tremendous income. I say that not in a bragadocious way but it’s time that this country has somebody running the country who has an idea about money.

  • Oh! Hillary just wrote my conclusion for me: “Words matter, my friends, and if you are running to be President or you are President of the United States, words can have tremendous consequences.”

Metaphors of the 2016 Presidential Election

I discovered today that if you Google a candidate’s name + “issue stances,” Google provides a list of key political issues and quotes from that candidate on the issue. As someone who tries to remain an educated voter but doesn’t particularly enjoy politics, I was excited to find what essentially seems to be the Sparknotes for voting.

Political discourse is known for being full of metaphors, and the quotes Google provided were no exception. Here are some of the more colorful ones I noticed and the ways they may shape the way we think about the issues*:

Immigration

Donald Trump repeatedly uses the metaphor of immigrants as water: “We cannot allow illegal immigrants to pour into our country,” and “These are people that shouldn’t be in our country. They flow in like water.” When water is flowing, and especially when it’s pouring, we infer that it’s coming fast and consistently. Further, when too much water comes too fast (like when it’s pouring rain), we end up with flooding, which can destroy infrastructure and the homes and lives that people have worked hard to build for themselves. These inferences seem to be consistent with Trump’s stance on immigration: if we don’t cut off the metaphorical faucet, we could all end up drowning, watching all that we’ve worked for float away.

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Image Credit

Clinton and Sanders use a journey metaphor for people who are in America illegally, often referring to a “path to citizenship” (a phrase they both use) and providing a “roadmap to citizenship to the 11 million aspiring Americans living in this country” (Sanders). Paths are intentional and defined, and when we stay on them, we eventually end up at a destination. Sometimes staying on a path does take some physical effort, but each step results in progress. Just as immigrants travel to arrive in America, once they’re here they will metaphorically travel towards citizenship. The inference accompanying this metaphor is that the Democratic candidates will further define and structure the path (perhaps by clarifying the roadmap) to allow immigrants to become legal citizens.

Education

The Democratic candidates have made some revolutionary statements about education, especially college education, that point to their goals to drastically reduce or eliminate students’ college debt. Hillary Clinton has referred to creating an “education SWAT team” of qualified people who would define education standards for the country. A SWAT team comes in to restore order during times of chaos and danger, so the SWAT team metaphor implies that our education system is in dire need of dramatic, immediate help. Bernie Sanders shares a similar viewpoint by sarcastically referring to the “crime of trying to get an education.” Just as criminals often have to pay burdensome fines for their actions, many college graduates find themselves with unrealistic amounts of debt after college. By likening college debt to criminal fines, Sanders implies that it is ridiculous that graduates and criminals both have similar punishments. If you buy into this metaphor, his plan to make public colleges free seems like a no-brainer. Donald Trump, on the other hand, makes few substantive comments on education, so his metaphors are not clear.

National Security

The metaphors for elements of national security seem to be a little more varied. On the side of avoiding too much security, Sanders says that “We can (protect the country from terrorism) without living in an Orwellian world.” You could argue that the reference to an Orwellian world is technically an allusion, but it’s also a metaphorical allusion. In George Orwell’s 1984, the government knows everything about everyone, and the book is a creepy warning for what can happen if the government oversteps its boundaries. This reference encourages people to think of the vague notion of the government increasing its intelligence efforts in more concrete terms but conjuring up the disturbing images from 1984.

There are also many metaphors that suggest that national security should be increased. Clinton’s language suggests that terrorism threats are concrete, material things, referring to “the threats we face together” and “The threat we face from terrorism is real, it is urgent, and it knows no boundaries.” People have a hard time thinking about things they can’t see or touch (or otherwise experience directly), which is when metaphor often comes in. Terrorism threats are a great example of a complex and intangible problem, but by suggesting that they are real things that we can face and that they can spread without boundaries, Clinton encourages people to think about them more concretely, which can in turn encourage us to take national security more seriously.

Trump often talks very literally about a wall around our borders. This is not a metaphor, but would be an especially vivid one if he wasn’t being serious. He does talk about our current border status metaphorically, however, claiming that “our borders are like Swiss cheese.” If only he were being literal about that border claim, we’d have a lot of happy people!

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Image Credit

* Here are the Google searches that turned up the quotes that I use throughout this post: Trump, Clinton, Sanders.

Metaphors and the government shutdown

Jon Stewart comically pointed out some bizarre metaphors bering used to talk about the government shutdown:

For one, Obama drew an analogy to workers at a factory, saying that the shutdown would be like workers who decided not to return to work if their employer refused to give them the benefits they demanded. Personally, I don’t think this analogy is too clever – that’s exactly what happened, but I guess if Obama thinks his message will be clearer to the average American if he talks about it in the context of a job the average Joe might have… it’s an interesting rhetorical strategy.

Stewart also showed a clip of Republican Senator Tom Coburn comparing the nation’s debt to credit card debt, and making a show of physically ripping up a giant credit card, belonging to “Washington.” Again, I’m not sure I would call this metaphor very creative, and I’m skeptical that his show of cutting up the card was very persuasive… but another interesting rhetorical strategy.

Image: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/10/jon-stewart-unpacks-metaphors-government-shutdown/70383/
Image: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/10/jon-stewart-unpacks-metaphors-government-shutdown/70383/

The final spotlighted metaphor in the Stewart segment was by Republican Senator Mike Lee. He compared spending in Congress to an instance of going to the grocery store and being forced to buy a book about cowboy poetry, Barry Manilow albums, and a half ton of iron ore, when he only wants bread, milk, and eggs. At first, his point was lost on me, but then I realized that his gripe is with paying for things for other people – things that one might not actually want. For some reason I have trouble feeling sympathetic for someone whose grocery store sells Barry Manilow albums and books of cowboy poetry – it sounds much more interesting than the one I frequent.

Although I think the metaphors that Stewart highlights are all pretty weak attempts at reframing the current situation, I think it’s cool that politicians intuitively (I’m assuming) appreciate metaphor’s persuasive power and are attempting to use it to their advantage. If they actually did a good job of it, it might be cause for worry- the possibility that they might be able to persuade just by referring to Congress as a factory is a little alarming!- but for now, I don’t think we have much cause for worry.