‘Fast and Frugal’: Understanding how people handle information a key to climate change communication

December 4, 2014 |

Top-down mitigation approaches advocated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have failed to produce global policies, leaving communities, industries and individuals vulnerable to shifting climates. But addressing these risks locally may bring about change that bubbles up, according to some experts.

“The world is not driven by big, thoughtful philosophical decisions but by individuals who make things happen,” says Sharon Dunwoody, Evjue-Bascom professor emerita of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “No one snippet of information will make much of a difference, but if we can influence a small portion of a lot of people, that’s a lot of people influenced.”

Sharon Dunwoody
Sharon Dunwoody, Evjue-Bascom professor emerita of journalism and mass communication at UW-Madison.

Dunwoody, an expert on risk communication and the nuance of message, was among a small group of social scientists who joined WICCI in its early days. She now serves as its Science Advisory Board co-chair along with James Hurley, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of both UW Sea Grant and the UW Water Resources Institute.

“WICCI has retained its original focus, but now with the realization that adaptation will require a lot more than physicists and biologists in the room,” Dunwoody says.

When people are confronted by an alarming risk like climate change, they often ignore it. The inability to truly understand the issue and the fear that there is no solution freezes people with inaction.

“It’s one way people cope,” says Dunwoody. “Knowing about a risk is helpful, of course, but how scared we are is what makes us act.”

Dunwoody explains that many people tune out complex scientific information in favor of quick and efficient decision-making. We are what sociologists call ‘fast and frugal’ information collectors and processors, leaving us unprepared to cope with uncertainty.

According to Dunwoody, helping individuals develop a strong need to know, and equipping citizens with a sense that they can help reduce the risk of climate change, makes the problem personally relevant.

“If I can convince you that you are at risk, then you care,” explains Dunwoody. “We respond significantly to fear, but when we are weeding through that forest of information, just telling people their downtown will flood on a regular basis isn’t enough; what is also needed are things people can do – and not just $2 trillion things.”

Global environmental and health issues are often so large that they may not seem relevant. It isn’t that people don’t value clean air and water and healthy food, but it’s easy to perceive that those issues are not a personal responsibility. When an issue becomes personal – for example, if a home water supply becomes tainted, or a basement floods, or an ash tree is at risk of being cut down by the city to short circuit an insect pest -- people are moved to seek information and take action.

Still, translating those personal concerns into public policies poses a big challenge. People don’t like to be told what to do. However, they do tend to conform to social norms. Dunwoody says that leaves people open to peer pressure, because most people want to be like everyone else. So if a person doesn’t care about climate change but someone in their peer group tells them that most Americans do, they may rethink their position.

Climate Wisconsin videos
Explaining climate change through easy-to-relate-to videos and social media may be most helpful in reaching the greater population.

“If we are not sure what to do, we will do what others like us are doing,” Dunwoody says. New research on persuasive messaging and social norms by Dunwoody and her colleagues is currently being prepared for publication.

In a 2007 book, Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change, Dunwoody authored a chapter titled “The Challenge of Trying to Make a Difference Using Media Messages.” She highlights five stumbling blocks that WICCI and other groups should consider when crafting messages: existing beliefs are tough to challenge or influence; messages can have a significant but entirely different effect on recipients from what the authors intend; and the them-versus-us perceptions we all have when negative information is presented keeps people from being personally concerned or taking action.

Finally, says Dunwoody, personal experiences hold more weight with most of us than data presented from a well-run study, and most of us will tune out complex scientific information in favor of quick and efficient decisions, making us ‘fast and frugal’ information collectors.

Understanding these tendencies, and devising communication strategies that connect at the personal level, offers the greatest chance for change.