Note: This alternative extra credit assignment is ONLY for those who did not participate in the study announced in class for extra credit. If you do both the study and this assignment, you will not get double points. Write a two-page review (12-point Times New Roman font, double spaced) of the assigned article (Geiger & Swim, 2016, click here) and be sure to answer ALL of the following questions. Reviews which fail to answer any of these questions will not receive credit. What was the topical focus of the article?What were the main hypotheses that the researchers made?How many studies were reported in the article?Answer the following questions for each study covered in the article:Was the study experimental or nonexperimental? If nonexperimental, which of the categories of studies did it fit into (as discussed in the Media Science section)?Which hypotheses were supported as per the results of this particular study? Which ones were not supported? Which ones (if any) were not even tested in this particular study? You can also discuss any topics or points that you found interesting or controversial in the article. You MUST complete this assignment by 5pm on Sunday, December 8th. Late assignments will not receive credit.
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Journal of Environmental Psychology 47 (2016) 79e90
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Journal of Environmental Psychology
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jep
Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change
discussion
Nathaniel Geiger, Janet K. Swim*
Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, USA
a r t i c l e i n f o
a b s t r a c t
Article history:
Received 21 August 2015
Received in revised form
29 April 2016
Accepted 6 May 2016
Available online 8 May 2016
Despite the importance of interpersonal public communication about climate change, most citizens
rarely discuss the topic. In two studies, we find that inaccurate perceptions of others’ opinions (i.e.
pluralistic ignorance) contribute to self-silencing among those concerned about climate change. Study 1
illustrates that those who are aware of others’ concern about climate change report greater willingness to
discuss the issue than those with inaccurate perceptions of others’ opinions. Study 2 demonstrates that
correcting pluralistic ignorance increases concerned participants’ willingness to discuss climate change.
In both studies, pluralistic ignorance leads to self-silencing because perceptions that others do not share
one’s opinion are associated with expecting to be perceived as less competent in a conversation about
climate change. In contrast to previous research on confronting prejudice, in the present research expectations about being disliked did not explain self-silencing. We discuss the implications for selfsilencing and promoting interpersonal communication about climate change.
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords:
Climate change
Pluralistic ignorance
Discussion
Impression management
Stereotype content model
1. Introduction
The challenge of climate change requires major economic and
social changes, both to transition to a low-carbon economy and to
adapt to the changes that are already “locked in” by previous patterns of carbon emissions (IPCC, 2014). A strong limiting factor to
the success of these changes is the public’s willingness to accept,
support, and actively engage in shaping economic, sociocultural,
political, and structural changes that help to address climate
change (Clayton et al., 2015; Jacobson & Delucchi, 2011). This public
response is most likely to occur when social changes coincide with
shared meaning and value structures held by a majority of citizens
(Dietz, 2013; Habermas, 1971, p 27). Thus, interpersonal communication about topics is crucial to build public acceptance and
support for social change: scientifically grounded public discussion
can increase public understanding of the problem, community
engagement, and development of consensus for locally appropriate
mitigation and adaptation solutions (Clayton et al., 2015; Swim,
Fraser, & Geiger, 2014). Currently, however, engagement in these
conversations are uncommon: only a quarter of the American
public report regularly discussing climate change (Leiserowitz,
Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2015), and similar
levels of silence are found among the British public (Capstick et al.,
2015; Rowson, 2013).
We suggest that the social dynamics surrounding climate
change are barriers to discussion e a socially constructed silence
(Marshall, 2014; Norgaard, 2011, p 82). First, we propose that
pluralistic ignorance e the tendency for a majority to misperceive
others’ opinions on a topic, falsely believing that fewer people share
their opinion than actually do (Prentice & Miller, 1993) e contributes to the lack of discussion about climate change. Despite a solid
majority of the public being concerned about climate change, most
underestimate the degree to which others are concerned (Leviston,
Walker, & Morwinski, 2013). Second, we propose that pluralistic
ignorance leads people to avoid discussing climate change because
people anticipate being evaluated more negatively by those who
disagree with them than those who agree with them in anticipated
conversations about the topic. Research on core dimensions of social evaluation suggests that anticipated negative evaluations
would be in the form of anticipating being perceived to lack
warmth, competence, or both (Fiske, Xu, Cuddy, & Glick, 1999).
2. Pluralistic ignorance and self-silencing
* Corresponding author. 511 Moore Building, University Park, PA 16802, USA.
E-mail address: janet.swim@gmail.com (J.K. Swim).
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2016.05.002
0272-4944/© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the public has demonstrated
pluralistic ignorance about climate change (Leviston et al., 2013).
80
N. Geiger, J.K. Swim / Journal of Environmental Psychology 47 (2016) 79e90
Pluralistic ignorance has been demonstrated across many topics:
support for racial segregation in the 1970s (most white Americans
supported desegregation but believed that most others supported
segregation; O’Gorman & Garry, 1976), norms of alcohol consumption (university students believed that norms of alcohol
consumption were excessive but perceived that most others supported them; Prentice & Miller, 1993), opinions on foreign policy
(most Americans support multilateral foreign policy but perceive
that most other Americans support unilateral foreign policy;
Todorov & Mandisodza, 2004) and comfort with “hooking up”
(students estimated that others felt more comfortable engaging in
uncommitted sexual activity than they did; Lambert, Kahn, &
Apple, 2003). Pluralistic ignorance could in part be due to the
lack of regular conversations about climate change (Leiserowitz
et al., 2015), which could lead to individuals having little insight
into others’ internal beliefs. Interestingly, pluralistic ignorance on
climate change has even been found among climate scientists who
underestimate concern among other scientific experts
(Lewandowsky, Oreskes, Risbey, Newell, & Smithson, 2015).
Pluralistic ignorance can have significant consequences for
effectively addressing social issues. Pluralistic ignorance is associated with attitude change shifting toward the perceived norm
(Leviston et al., 2013; Prentice & Miller, 1993); behavioral conformity to the perceived norm (Prentice & Miller, 1993; Schroeder &
Prentice, 1998), and relevant to the present study, reduced willingness to share one’s opinion on a topic (Miller & McFarland, 1987;
Rios & Chen, 2014; Taylor, 1982). Conversely, correcting pluralistic
ignorance by providing information about the true beliefs of others
can reverse these effects (Schroeder & Prentice, 1998).
The spiral of silence theory specifically addresses the impact of
pluralistic ignorance on public discourse (Noelle-Neumann, 1993;
Taylor, 1982). This theory proposes that individuals scan their social environment for information about others’ opinions and that
people are less willing to share their opinion when informational
cues lead them to believe that they hold a minority view (vs. majority view), especially when the topic is perceived as controversial
or morally charged (Noelle-Neumann, 1993). Silencing is proposed
to be self-reinforcing: if many who hold a particular view believe
that they are in the minority and remain silent, the silence leads
others who share this view to believe that their opinion is uncommon and encourages them to also remain silent. Motivation to
self-silence is also proposed to increase when individuals believe
that their opinion is declining in public popularity (Taylor, 1982).
The premises derived from pluralistic ignorance and spiral of
silence theory may explain why people are hesitant to discuss
climate change. The principles outlined in spiral of silence theory
are purported to apply primarily to morally controversial or valueladen topics, such as abortion, support for addressing racial
inequality, and political party preference in national elections (Moy,
Domke, & Stamm, 2001; Noelle-Neumann, 1993). Climate change
might appear to differ from these more commonly studied topics
because climate change is a scientific topic supported by a solid
body of evidence and an overwhelming consensus of scientific
experts whom agree that human-caused climate change is occurring and presents a significant threat to global civilization (Cook
et al., 2013, 2016; Oreskes, 2004). Yet, expression of opinions
about climate change has taken on a cultural significance distinct
from scientific understanding of the topic due to its politicization.
About half of U.S. senators recently voted to publicly deny that
“human activity significantly contributes to climate change”
(Goldenberg, 2015), despite scientific consensus and only approximately 10% of Americans similarly dismissing the scientific evidence behind anthropogenic climate change (Leiserowitz et al.,
2015). Further, many perceive the topic principally as a moral
topic because of the potential negative impacts of unchecked
climate change (Markowitz, 2012). Another point of view,
expressed by a vocal minority who question the scientific
consensus, is that climate change is a conspiracy that is immorally
being promoted as scientific fact by those who wish to promote a
specific political agenda (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac, 2013).
In sum, it appears that climate change has culturally acquired a
controversial, moral connotation in modern society, and thus we
propose that the processes described in pluralistic ignorance and
spiral of silence will also apply to climate change. Thus, we make
the following prediction:
Hypothesis 1. Participants will be less willing to talk about climate
change when they perceive that their opinions are in the minority (vs.
the majority).
3. Impression management and self-silencing
Self-silencing may be a form of impression management. Individuals desire to be viewed in a positive light and sharing an
unpopular opinion could result in others perceiving them negatively. Researchers have proposed that people self-silence because
of fear of isolation (Noelle-Neumann, 1993), rejection (Bergsieker,
Shelton, & Richeson, 2010), social retributions for violating cultural norms prescribing silence (Norgaard, 2011), embarrassment
(Miller & McFarland, 1987), being dismissed as a “complainer”
(Kaiser & Miller, 2001; Swim & Hyers, 1999), and being seen as
ignorant (Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990).
The varied explanations for self-silencing listed in the above
paragraph can be organized along two core dimensions of impressions: fears about being a) disliked or b) losing respect. Interpersonal evaluation research suggests that up to 90% of initial
impressions of others can be organized along these two core dimensions, which directly reflect the core dimensions of social
cognition: warmth (those perceived as low in warmth are disliked)
and competence (those perceived as low in competence are not
respected) (Abele & Wojciszke, 2007; Fiske et al., 1999). These two
dimensions have been consistently described across various
literature (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002; Heider, 1958; Rosenberg,
Nelson, & Vivekanathan, 1968; Singh, Ho, Tan, & Bell, 2007) and
align with two basic impression management goals: the desire to
have an audience think favorably about oneself and the desire to
present one’s ideal self to others (Bergsieker et al., 2010; Schlenker,
1975). Thus, warmth reflects being perceived as friendly and
cooperative, while competence corresponds with being respected
and achieving high social status (Fiske et al., 1999, 2002). Being
perceived as either cold (i.e., confrontational and unlikeable) or
incompetent (i.e., not respected and low status) are distinct
grounds for anticipated social rejection, and thus people may alter
their behavior in attempts to manage others’ impressions of them
on one or both of these dimensions (Holoien & Fiske, 2013).
3.1. Avoiding being disliked
The desire to avoid being disliked has been well established as a
motive for self-silencing when one is a target of discrimination and
prejudice. (Sechrist, Swim, & Stangor, 2004; Shelton & Stewart,
2004; Stangor et al., 2003; Swim & Hyers, 1999). This desire leads
individuals to refrain from confronting discrimination despite their
wishes to do so (e.g., Swim, Eyssell, Murdoch, & Ferguson, 2010) or
despite what they expect they would do (Shelton & Stewart, 2004;
Swim & Hyers, 1999; Woodzicka & LaFrance, 2001), particularly in
the presence of others expected to not share one’s own point of
view (Swim & Hyers, 1999). Individuals faced with discrimination
often perceive the possibility of confronting as impolite (Swim &
Hyers, 1999) and those who do confront are devalued as difficult
N. Geiger, J.K. Swim / Journal of Environmental Psychology 47 (2016) 79e90
to interact with and “complainers” (Kaiser & Miller, 2001).
Consistent with the argument that individuals self-silence to avoid
being disliked, women were less likely to assertively respond to
sexist comments during a job interview when the desire to be liked
was emphasized than when the desire to be respected was valued
more highly (Mallett & Melchiori, 2014).
Fear of being disliked may also motivate suppression of opinions
about climate change. Individuals may be concerned about being
perceived as an “alarmist” or environmental activist if they were to
express their concern about the topic, labels which carry potentially negative connotations of being disliked by others. Similar to
those who confront discrimination, those who are “alarmed” about
climate change are perceived as “whiny”, “nagging”, and “complainers” (Swim & Geiger, 2016b) and prototypic environmental
activists are commonly stereotyped as “eccentric”, “self-righteous,”
and “reactive” (Bashir, Lockwood, Chasteen, Nadolny, & Noyes,
2013), all traits associated with being seen as cold and disliked by
others. These negative impressions are associated with reduced
willingness to engage in climate change activism and to affiliate
with environmental activists. Expectations about being disliked for
speaking one’s opinions may be accentuated in particular contexts;
namely, when individuals anticipate that others do not share their
views and thus believe that expressing their opinion would be
confrontational within a given context (Noelle-Neumann, 1993).
Based upon the above, we make the following prediction.
Hypothesis 2. Individuals’ hesitation to discuss climate change in
situations when they perceive their opinions are in the minority (vs.
the majority) will be partly explained by expectations of appearing less
warm in the conversation.
3.2. Avoiding losing respect
Another motive for self-silencing is the concern that one would
lose others’ respect following a conversation about a topic.
Expressing an unpopular opinion could result in appearing ignorant to others (Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990), and people may remain
silent out of fear of embarrassing themselves when they believe
that they are less knowledgeable about a topic than others (Miller &
McFarland, 1987). Yet, research suggests that confronting discrimination does not lead to the confronter being perceived as incompetent (i.e. losing respect; Stangor et al., 2003; Swim, Gervais,
Pearson, & Stangor, 2009), and women more interested in being
respected than liked were more likely to confront sexism during a
job interview than other women (Mallett & Melchiori, 2014). This
could suggest that concerns about losing respect are less central
than concerns about being disliked when individuals consider
whether to self-silence unpopular opinions.
However, in contrast to confronting discrimination, the degree
to which an individual expects to be perceived as competent may
affect willingness to engage in discussions about climate change.
Since climate change is a scientific topic, expectations of appearing
competent may be more salient than expectations of appearing
warm since understanding of scientific topics maps onto the
competence dimension, but not the warmth dimension, of social
cognition (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007). This proposition is supported by work examining informal scientific educators’ concerns
about incorporating climate change into their education curriculum
(Swim & Fraser, 2013, 2014). The more concerned educators were
about being able to competently communicate about climate
change the more likely they were to avoid extensively communicating with visitors about this topic.
Given that even trained scientific educators express concern
about being capable of communicating climate change, nonscientists may be even more likely to hold these concerns. Research
81
shows that most nonscientists have limited understanding of the
scientific mechanisms of climate change (Leiserowitz, Smith, &
Marlon, 2010; Swim et al., 2014), and thus may be concerned
about appearing ignorant or incompetent when discussing this
topic. Further, the expectation of appearing incompetent may be
amplified when considering a discussion with an audience not
expected to share one’s views, partly because a dissenting audience
may challenge the speaker or question their assumptions. Based
upon the above analyses we make the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 3. Individuals’ hesitation to discuss climate change in
situations when they perceive their opinions are in the minority (vs.
the majority) will be partly explained by expectations of appearing less
competent in the conversation.
4. Present research
In two studies, we examine the effects of pluralistic ignorance
on willingness to discuss climate change. We first conducted two
pilot studies to verify that the pattern of pluralistic ignorance about
climate change observed in Leviston et al. (2013) work would
replicate in our target population. Next, in Study 1 we examine
whether participants who do not themselves doubt the scientific
view on climate change and hold inaccurate perceptions of others’
opinions are less willing to discuss the topic than those who
endorse similar views about climate change but hold accurate
perceptions of others’ opinions. In Study 2, we experimentally
manipulate perceptions of others’ opinions and examine the effects
of correcting pluralistic ignorance on facilitating discussion relative
to emphasizing the false perceptions of others’ opinions. Study 2
participants include a full range of personal opinions about climate
change ranging from those who are very concerned about climate
change to those who consider themselves nonbelievers. In both
studies, we examine whether expectations of being perceived as a)
warm and/or b) competent explain the psychological process underlying these effects.
5. Pilot studies
Pilot testing with undergraduate students in introductory psychology courses (reflecting a range of students across the campus)
were consistent with previous findings about pluralistic ignorance
on climate change (Leviston et al., 2013). One pilot sample
completed a screening instrument that has been used to categorize
the public into different levels of concern about climate change (i.e.,
the Six Americas’ questionnaire, Maibach, Leiserowitz, RoserRenouf, & Mertz, 2011) and self-categorized into different levels
of concern about climate change as assessed by the same screening
instrument. Both methods indicated that a majority of students
were on concerned side of the opinion spectrum: survey instrument (N ¼ 365): 7% Alarmed, 40% Concerned, 40% Cautious, 3%
Disengaged, 8% Doubtful, 3% Dismissive; self-categorization
(N ¼ 368): 8% Alarmed, 28% Concerned, 39% Cautious, 19% Disengaged, 3% Doubtful, 3% Dismissive. This pattern is similar to this age
group in the American public (Leiserowitz et al., 2015) and in
subsequent tests in the same participant pool (Geiger & Swim,
2014). Yet, despite this majority concern, in a second pilot test
(N ¼ 89), only 30% of respondents accurately perceived that a
majority of other students were concerned about climate change.
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