Expressing green positions has the potential to negatively affect people’s reputation, by making them look judgmental, says a study
People refrain from sharing accusatorial statements about climate change, likely because they fear appearing judgmental and unfriendly. A study investigated the reputational costs of sharing statements about climate change that vary in accuracy and in potential impact.
The study tested whether sources who shared bleak, or accusatorial statements about the environment, compared to neutral statements, would be perceived more negatively, less friendly and more judgmental. The experiment conducted among 1,197 participants in the US and the UK showed that participants judged those more negatively who shared a bleak and accusatory, but arguably more accurate statement about climate change compared to a controlled or neutral statement.
For example, the statement “The richest 1% in the world is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions,” became widely shared in 2020, following an Oxfam report. In wealthy countries, many people who heard that statement might not have realised that they were likely part of the richest 1%. Instead, they might have blamed the super rich from their own country, and may not have seen why they would need to change their own behaviour. People exposed to this statement might have also found the source agreeable, as they pointed out morally reprehensible behaviour by others.
By contrast, consider this statement—“The richest 1% in the world is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions, because most citizens in countries like the United States consume too much energy.” This statement was, arguably, more accurate, since it made people in wealthy countries realise they are likely part of the problem—which might have led them to change their behaviour. However, such a statement was more directly accusatorial, and may have made those who heard it dislike its source. This is an example of the tradeoffs between accuracy of the statement and likeableness of the source that the study explored.
The experiment showed the fear of appearing judgmental and unfriendly might make people less likely to share bleaker or more accusatorial—even if more accurate or potentially effective—statements about climate change.
Earlier, research mentioned in the study also suggested that expressive green behaviour like taking green positions, going to green protests, etc. can negatively affect people’s reputation, making them appear more judgmental. This reputational risk could reduce their motivation to take green positions, and to share even relevant and accurate information about the environment.
In other words, people “self-silence” because of an undue fear of being judged negatively if they discuss climate change. Unless one used very neutral language and avoided bleak or accusatorial statements, these fears might be justified, said the study.
However, the study found there might be ways to attenuate these negative perceptions, in particular if the individual uttering the accusatorial statements “walked the walk” by having a low carbon footprint.
The study noted the importance of interpersonal discussions in the domain of environment-related technology. For instance, people talking to each other has been a crucial vector in the adoption of solar panels, discussions with friends and family allowed people to learn about the scientific consensus on global warming, which has led to increased acceptance of that consensus view.