Can Doom Prophesy Inhibit Change?

Dr David Straton, M.B.,Ch.B.
Lecturer, Department of Psychological Medicine,
Wellington Clinical School of Medicine.
New Zealand.

Presented at a seminar 'Surviving the Twentieth Century',
organised by the Centre for Continuing Education,
University of Waikato, New Zealand. July 1977.

Anyone who has been active in the environment movement will have met that irritating person who says 'I agree with everything you say, but I am not going to do anything about it because there's no point.'

They will also have met the person who doesn't want to listen because they find 'talk of doom depressing', and the person who is sure that there is only a 'one-in-a-million chance of that happening' in spite of insufficient evidence.

Most environmentalists have also been abused at some time or another 'being emotive'.

Why do these things happen? Is it just that some people are naturally apathetic, stubborn, blindly optimistic or just plain pig-ignorant? Or does it reflect upon the tactics of the environmentalists, and is there anything they can do to persuade people more effectively? Can prophesies of doom scare some people into taking the problems seriously but scare others into thinking that nothing can be done?

One of the first pieces of research on this question was the classical study by Janis and Feshbach (1953) on dental hygiene propaganda. They gave different illustrated talks on tooth decay to three groups of school children. The high-fear talk contained gruesome illustrations of tooth decay, the medium-fear talk was more factual and less emotive, and the low-fear even more so. One week later, the high-fear group was found to have changed its tooth-brushing behaviour least. The other two groups were similar. The investigators concluded the 'overall effectiveness of a persuasive communication will tend to be reduced by a strong fear appeal if it evokes high emotional tension without adequately satisfying the need for reassurance'.

This evidence would tend to make us shy away from using fear-appeals, but a lot of the more recent research has conflicted with these findings.

Kraus and others (1966) found that strong fear-appeals were successful in persuading people not to look at an eclipse without eye protection.

Other studies have also shown fear appeals to be effective. (Higbee, 1969; McGuire, 1969; Leventhal, 1970). Some of these showed that there are other important factors as well as the level of fear aroused. In particular it was shown that both fear arousal and specific recommendations for its reduction are needed to result in action.

In other words, its not enough to scare people, you've got to tell them what to do to reduce the threat. What's more, the escape you offer them must be both quick and easy. A study on cancer and chest X-rays (Leventhal, Niles, 1964) found that smokers shown a frightening film about lung cancer would take an opportunity to have a chest X-ray immediately afterwards, but were less likely to stop smoking than smokers shown a low-fear arousing film.

There are of course numerous individual differences which influence the effects of fear-appeals. Goldstein (1959) divided people into those who could cope with feelings and those who avoid them. High fear-appeals were more effective with the 'copers' than with the 'avoiders'. Janis and Feshbach (1954) found that people with a high level of anxiety responded poorly to high fear-appeals when compared with more relaxed individuals.

These studies merely emphasize the complexity of the issue, and remind us that what may be a good tactic for changing one person's attitude may be quite inappropriate for another.

Given the fact that some of the evidence is conflicting and that there are important individual differences and other variables can we draw any conclusions from this research?

I believe that the following statements are likely to be true:

1) The arousal of a moderate level of fear will increase audience attention and make attitude changes more likely.

2) The arousal of extreme fear will bring psychological defense mechanisms into play, such as denial, repression, apathy, reaction formation, or projection. This is more likely to happen if:

a) The audience feels there is nothing they can do about the problem,
b) The solution involves significant change in their behaviour,
c) They are not given the opportunity or adequate information on which to act to reduce their level of fear,
d) The action they are recommended does not seem likely to reduce the threat.

So, its O.K. to scare people with talk of doom, but only if you present them with specific, detailed and credible recommendations for doing something to avoid it.

Another important area to look at is the relationship between attitudes and behaviour. There are few environmentalists who have no guilty gaps between their actions and their beliefs. It is one thing to change attitudes and yet another to change behaviour.

Behaviour is the result not only of attitudes but also of the perceived situation in which the individual finds him or herself. That perceived situation can be altered by:

a) new information,
b) new emphasis on existing information, or
c) a change in the actual situation.

One study (Leventhal and others, 1965) showed that fear-appeals about tetanus produced marked attitude change and a behavioural intention to get a tetanus inoculation, but did not have a significant effect on the actual behaviour. On the other hand, specific instructions on where to get the tetanus shot did not affect attitudes but did markedly increase the number of people who actually had the injection. In this instance at least, practical information was more important than attitude change in producing the desired behaviour.

The perceived situation can also be altered by an increased emphasis on some aspects of it. The environment movement has been very successful in drawing attention to problems that have often existed for some time. In one study conducted before the widespread attention attracted by environmentalists only 3% of respondents in Seattle mentioned aircraft noise as a problem; a few years later the figure was 15% although the noise had not significantly increased. (Fiedler, Fiedler, 1975). Similar changes in perception have been noted with air pollution. (Auliciems, Burton, 1971).

On the other side, people's perceptions are being constantly influenced by advertising which emphasizes the desirability of a high-consumptive life-style.

A change in the actual situation can also produce a change in behaviour. An increase in the price of petrol leads to a drop in consumption. It seems to many people a better way of reducing consumption than appealing to an 'environmental ethic'. Studies on the success of self-control in moderating behaviour have been rather depressing. During the 1973-74 petrol shortage only 8% of people in one U.S. study joined a carpool, although two to three times as many were making similar daily trips. (Horowitz, 1975). Even people sufficiently concerned about the environment to attend an environmental 'teach-in' found it hard to change their behaviour. Only 13% significantly changed their lifestyle. (Lingwood, 1971). A study in New Zealand has shown there to be no relationship between positive attitudes to energy conservation and actual energy-conserving behaviour. (Phillips, 1976).

If attempts at self-denial are largely unsuccessful, then how can the environment movement achieve change? The weight of evidence suggests that most people prefer some form of government action rather than personal individual efforts. (Lipsey, 1977). This may not be as irrational as it seems at first sight. One car more or less will make little difference to the world's oil reserves, while a government transport policy change may be more effective. This point of emphasis has the advantage that tangible support for such a campaign can be recommended as the 'quick and easy' fear-reducing action after a speech on oil-reserves. People will sign petitions, donate money, join organizations or apply car stickers to their back window with enthusiasm, even though they are less likely to change their own energy-consuming behaviour.

This is all very well and likely to be a reasonably successful strategy in the short term, but what about the longer term? Will governments be able to significantly improve the quality of the environment and conserve scarce resources without requiring unpopular sacrifices from the general population? And if that happens, how resilient will our environmental attitudes prove to be? This, I believe, is one of the most crucial questions in the coming decade.

We have seen that fear-appeals can in certain situations be used constructively to persuade people to do a specific and limited action like signing a petition or joining an organization. It therefore makes sense to consider ways in which that initial action can be consolidated.

Two of the most important ways in which people learn are modeling and by reward. In everyday life the usual reward is social approval. In order for rewards to work there must be some degree of deprivation (Kunkel, 1975) so since few people in our society get enough attention and approval this particular reinforcement works very well.

In practical terms, this means that you attempt to involve your converts in a group of like-minded people who can model suitable attitudes and behaviour, and who can reward the newcomers with approval whenever they conform to them. This is, of course, the way in which all groups operate. Many, however, also contain power seekers whose activities may subtly 'put-down' newcomers and thus counteract the attitude-consolidation process and the development of group cohesion.

If you want your converts to become 'activists' in this cause it is worth being aware of some other processes. Activism usually requires some public speaking, canvassing and door-knocking. Many recent converts are afraid of doing these things. A learning programme incorporating the principles used in the treatments of phobias can be very helpful. Two such principles are regularly employed. One is called 'systematic desensitization' which roughly means 'breaking them in gently'. The other is modeling. Meeting procedure which involves small groups as well as a large group provides opportunities for beginners to practice speaking to a few people before tackling a mass audience.

One series of graded door knocking tasks goes as follows:

a) door knocking in the company of an experienced activist, (modeling).
b) taking round a non-partisan opinion poll,(has a high success rate -no need to risk losing an argument).
c) taking round a petition, (this carries more risk of disagreement and rejection).
d) canvassing (you have to express an opinion and risk rejection).

All door knocking exercises should finish with a get-together for mutual congratulation.

This is only one possible programme for attitude-consolidation. There could be many others. Any programme should aim to reinforce attitudes, to involve the converts in a cohesive group, to gently introduce them to anxiety-provoking tasks, and to encourage public identification with the change. If these steps are achieved, then behaviour change is likely to follow.

The 'Hell-fire and Damnation' preachers used a similar routine. First, a sermon on sin and hell (fear-appeal). Then prayer for forgiveness (specific instructions for a quick and easy method to reduce fear). This was often followed by hymn singing (the development of group cohesion) and later involvement in the work of the church (attitude consolidation and further group development). Ecologists should be wary of using the tactics of the doom-prophets if they are not in a position to constructively use the feelings they stir up.

A brief survey of the literature on fear and attitude change is bound to raise more questions than it answers, especially since much of the research does not directly concern attitudes to ecocatastrophe. How much can we generalize from research on tooth brushing, tetanus inoculations and smoking, to tactics used in campaigns against nuclear power or exponential economic growth? It is likely that every issue has some features that are unique.

Questions raised by this paper include:

1) The importance of information; should New Zealand have a Freedom of Information Act?
2) The effect of propaganda on perceptions; should there be controls on advertising?
3) Strategies of change; is it better to pressure the government or call for individual self-denial?
4) When to talk of disaster;. are posters and books appropriate vehicles for scare messages?
5) Do 'either-or' scenarios breed feelings of impotence and pessimistic apathy?
6) Pressure-group procedures; what is the best way to consolidate attitude change?

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