Penn State

Study explains why people self-silence when it comes to climate change

As human beings, we care about what others think — especially when it concerns ourselves. Research says there is a biological reason for this insofar as the reward centers in our brain light up when others agree with us.

When it comes to climate change, that perception, or fear of it, can keep us in the dark, according to a study by a pair of Penn State researchers.

“There has been previous research suggesting that people tend to underestimate the number of other people concerned about climate change,” said Nathan Geiger, who authored the study with Janet Swim, a professor of psychology. “We’re looking at the consequences of that misperception.”

Called “pluralistic ignorance,” the phenomenon presents itself when people who believe in climate change believe that others around them do not. Because we fear being perceived negatively, according to the research, it leads to a self-silencing spiral.

Ignorance, in other words, is contagious.

“What’s kind of interesting is that can potentially have the ironic effect of creating further pluralistic ignorance,” Geiger said. “So if people who are concerned about climate change don’t talk about climate change, people aren’t aware of the degree to which others are concerned.”

The research, published in the September volume of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, featured two studies. The first asked about 300 students to gauge the perceptions of other students regarding climate change. Those who believed their peers disagreed with them were less likely to speak up, reporting fear of being perceived negatively.

The second study ran an experiment that went a step further. The students were brought into a classroom and were instructed to use an electronic clicker to indicate their concern about climate change. They were told that after the results were shown, they’d then engage in a conversation about the topic.

But instead of seeing the actual responses, the students saw one of two graphs: Via random assignment, they either saw that most of their peers were concerned about climate change or that the opposite was the case. Again, pluralistic ignorance won out.

“Climate change should be a scientific topic,” Geiger said. “Some people say it should be a political topic, but it’s science, right?”

Despite lagging behind most of the world, a majority of Americans nonetheless believe climate change is a concern. According to Gallup, about two-thirds of U.S. adults are worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about global warming.

Geiger added that our penchant for categorizing ourselves, or our perceived social identity, can conflict with our ability to reason.

“We have this belief in society that this is a partisan issue,” he said. “The stereotype is that the Democrats are alarmists and the Republicans don’t believe it’s happening. So when you start thinking about yourself in terms of being a Democrat or a Republican, that can serve to polarize this topic.

“Raising the salience of an identity causes people to differentiate themselves from people who are not in their group,” he continued. “This is something that has happened in various contexts since the dawn of human history, but it’s interesting now with the way media is changing. For instance, if I’m someone who is progressive, I can get completely different information about how the world works than someone who is conservative.”

So to break the cycle, he said, it takes talking it out. Particularly with something that is hard to visualize such as climate change.

“We are more attuned to threats that pique our attention, and things that are slow-moving can be harder to capture our attention,” Geiger said. “It can send us down this downward spiral where we’re all concerned, but we’re all kind of silent about it.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy