Thursday, 4 May 2017

Arts and Science Festival 2017

Each year, the University of Birmingham hosts the Arts &Science Festival, a week-long celebration of research, culture and collaboration across campus and beyond. During the festival, those involved in different aspects of university life deliver a programme of concerts, exhibitions, screenings, talks and workshops around a common theme. This year’s theme “Land and Water” had us at project PERFECT thinking about perceptions of climate change, and in the following, I report on a lunchtime event that we hosted on this topic, in which we were joined by Ulrike Hahn (Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Birkbeck, below) and Anna Bright (‎Chief Executive at Sustainability West Midlands).


Why should those researching imperfect cognitions be interested in perceptions of climate change? Well, it turns out that the former frequently feature in, and shape, the latter. We see lots of things, beyond the consideration of climactic data, influence whether people believe climate change is happening. For instance, numerous studies show that people who are politically Conservative are less likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change than people who are politically Liberal (McCright and Dunlap 2011; Kahan et al. 2011). 

There are likely multiple reasons for this, but the discomforting dissonance that comes from (i) championing free market economics (as Conservatives tend to) and recognising the oil trade as a central feature of the global market, and (ii) acknowledging that reliance on oil is causing climate damage, probably plays a part in downgrading the credence placed in climate science. So, the tendency to irrationality in order to preserve consistency features prominently in climate perceptions, rendering this topic of interest to researchers of imperfect cognitions. You can watch a video of my talk here:


Ulrike Hahn gave our second talk, adding another layer to the narrative, by demonstrating that when people deliberate about whether or not anthropogenic climate change is happening, they’re rarely making this judgement on the basis of the scientific findings, but believing on the basis of the testimony of someone else. For instance, many people will read about climate science from a reporter writing in a newspaper, who may themselves only read executive summaries of climate science reports. Others still will be one further step removed, learning about climate science through what their friends have read in the paper. 

The dynamics of belief update on the basis of testimony depends not simply on the quality of the evidence, but on the credence placed in the source, and so on the model proposed there are several stages at which the people might downgrade their belief in the evidence as a result of low credence associated with the source. Group belief dynamics also demonstrate how a false belief can propagate through a group and engender more members of the group to believe falsely (as in Condorcet’s Jury Theorem). Ulrike pointed out the work already done in this area, and demonstrated that it is territory ripe for further research.

Anna Bright gave the third talk, on the topic of sustainable behavioural change, which you can see again here:


Anna has worked in environmental management for the past fifteen years, and talked us through a number of case studies, with strategies employed by various organisations to promote environmentally sound behaviour. For instance, we heard about the TLC behaviour change programme developed with Barts Health NHS Trust to promote more sustainable behaviour and practices by NHS staff. Of particular interest was the 10,000 actions campaign at the University of Manchester. A bespoke online dashboard tool, developed in partnership with Net Positive Futures, enables users to build a profile and load information about their day-to-day around campus, so that people can develop their own tailored action plan to help reduce their environmental impact. As Anna suggested, this allows people to be creative in their approach to sustainability, and the visibility of the data enables people to see what others are doing, encouraging further efforts.


Anna also talked about the power of social norms, and knowing what others around you are doing as instrumental to successful campaigns. In particular, Anna highlighted the use of descriptive norms (those stating, who or how many people in fact perform some action, as opposed to giving the reasons why one should perform some action) to bring about some instances of behavioral change. Anna appealed to a 2008 study, in which hotel guests who read a message stating that “75% of hotel guests have reused their towels’’ reused their own towels more frequently than those who read a message providing environmental reasons to do so. When the message referred to guests in the same room, it was even more effective. 

Whilst the effectiveness of this technique may vary for different behaviours, and across different cultures, descriptive norm messaging can play an important role in motivating behaviour change. But it won’t work everywhere - Anna suggested that elsewhere, appealing to people’s core values and intrinsic reasons for acting is likely to promote longer-term behavioural change.

In summary, there is no one-click solution, but successful behavioural change may be brought about though a mix of techniques, appealing to both norms and values, incorporating technology, and promoting creativity and fun.

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