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Building connections – a new way to boost engagement with climate change communication?

Title: The Effects of Establishing Intimacy and Consubstantiality on Group Discussions About Climate Change Solutions

Author(s) and Year: Emma Frances Bloomfield, Lyn M. Van Swol, Chen-Ting Chang, Stephanie Willes, and Paul Hangsan Ahn. (2020)

Journal: Science Communication, Vol. 42(3) 369–394

TL;DR: For a long time, it’s been assumed that lack of accessibility in climate science research is limiting engagement with climate science. But what if we take a new angle? This study determined whether building connections between groups of individuals can increase their engagement with climate change research. The verdict? It did!

Why I chose this paper: Addressing climate change is one of the biggest challenges of modern science and society. The fact that the majority of the general public aren’t engaging in climate science research contributes to this challenge. I’m particularly interested in any science communication research that’s helping to bridge this gap. This paper is a new take on building engagement beyond increasing the accessibility of research materials.

The Details

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues that our generation will face, yet only a small subset of the general population is engaged with relevant research and information. Tackling climate change requires a multifaceted approach which, in turn, requires engagement and collaboration across society. To find a functional, and globally acceptable, solution, it’s critical that we boost engagement with climate change communication (and fast!).

Why aren’t more people engaged with climate change science?

As per the information deficit model, some researchers believe that a lack of information primarily fuels the mass rejection of climate change information. Put simply, some researchers believe that people don’t have enough existing knowledge to accept and believe new information about climate change. However, other research shines doubt upon this view and asserts that focusing on delivering information alone can be counterproductive to boosting engagement with climate change communications.

Building on this and other research that suggests that recognizing shared interests creates more opportunities for collaboration, researchers have tested a new model for fostering increased engagement and inciting productive climate change conversations.

By nature, climate conversations are often polarizing. In order for these conversations to be effective, people not only need to be open and receptive to differing opinions, they need to feel comfortable to share their own.

So what did this study set out to achieve?

Bloomfield et al. investigated whether establishing common ground between participants would create an engaged and cooperative environment that better facilitated conversation around a controversial topic.

Their study involved a relatively large sample of undergraduate students. The students were divided into small virtual chat rooms of 4-7 people, and groups were equally distributed to one of two arms.

One arm of the study, named the ‘information’ group, required that groups take part in an information-based warm-up activity where they discussed their existing knowledge of climate change without sharing their personal opinions. Conversely, participants in the ‘intimacy’ arm completed a warm-up activity designed to build connections by sharing personal experiences and finding common interests.

Both groups then had to agree upon the best solution to tackle climate change from five given options outlined in an abridged version of a New York Times article. The chat room closed after 20 minutes, and participants filled out a questionnaire about their experience.

The Results

To identify differences between how the groups approached their discussions, the authors used linguistics and rhetorical analysis to identify differences in emotive, friendship, or assenting language as well as general language complexity. They found that participants in the intimacy arm demonstrated a positive, friendly environment (Figure 1) and described reaching their conclusion as a "collective decision."

The number of ‘negations’ in each arm show that differences of opinion occurred at similar frequencies in both arms. What differed, though, were the responses to the negations. In the ‘information’ arm, differences in opinion typically resulted in halts to productivity. Participants were often unable to reach a shared consensus, describing the process as “rushed” and “one-sided”. In the ‘intimacy’ arm, however, disagreements led to further brainstorming of ideas and groups were able to work together to find a mutually agreeable outcome. Since this is the ultimate goal of climate communication, these findings could have an instrumental impact in reaching a global consensus to collectively find a "next step" action against climate change.

Figure legend: Some of the key differences between the language use of the intimacy and information arms. Note the similarity in language complexity between arms but the strong differences in emotive, informal, and intimacy language.

Interestingly, the authors found no significant differences in language complexity between the two arms, suggesting comparable intellectual discussion. This finding goes against their belief that the information group would hold more intellectual discussion and suggests that creating intimacy does not negate the possibility for such discussions.

The study suggests that there’s no downside to fostering connections prior to communicating controversial science; rather, these connections may provide opportunities to foster more productive conversations. Perhaps of most importance, though, is that participants in the ‘intimacy’ arm were far more likely to use positive descriptive language and recount a positive experience of the activity.

The Impact

Traditionally, most science communication efforts have focused on making research more accessible to increase engagement. This research suggests that lack of engagement may be more closely linked with not feeling connected to the information or the people around them. Building connections through common interests is a promising tool that could have a significant impact in boosting engagement with climate change research and science more widely.

This study does have a number of limitations that should be explored further. As undergraduates, the majority of participants are ages 22 and under and are likely predisposed to be more engaged with climate change than an older population. A follow-up study could explore wider audiences.

Likewise, the use of a virtual chat room for debate does raise the question of whether the findings would transpose into a ‘real life’ setting. Regardless, this study is a promising piece of research with easily reproducible actions that could have a significant impact in communicating climate change research and science more widely.

Edited by: Iris Du and Stephanie Deppe

Cover image credit: TheDigitalArtist

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