By Cristy Lytal
Global climate sustainability requires individual change; that’s why USC Provost Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin is diving deep into the research on public perceptions of climate change, sustainability and other topics using insights from psychology.
“I’m looking to help people with decisions that they want to make,” said Bruine de Bruin, who uses her expertise in the psychology of risk to inform communications and interventions that promote health, safety, well-being and sustainability. “Some people may not care or want to know anything about climate change or whatever topic, but some people do. And those people should be able to find information that is helpful to them—not just that it’s understandable, but actually useful for reducing their carbon footprint in their daily lives.”
Motivated by her desire to help people, Bruine de Bruin originally intended to become a therapist. While earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Free University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, she began questioning her course work in clinical psychology.
“We had to do things like act out people’s dreams in class,” she said, “so I wasn’t so sure that clinical psychology was helping people in the way that I was being taught it.”
For her master’s degree, she gravitated towards what she considered to be the most scientific branch of the field: cognitive psychology, which is the study of how people think and use information. Specifically, she became interested in the psychology of decision making, and pursued her PhD in Behavioral Decision Research and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
She went on to become a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon, and worked with a team to design a sex education program and interactive video that taught adolescent girls to mentally rehearse what they wanted to say and do. This “cognitive rehearsal” actually changed girls’ behavior, leading to more abstinence, fewer condom failures and a reduced likelihood of being diagnosed with an STD.
As a direct result of this award-winning sex ed program, the head of Carnegie Mellon’s engineering department asked Bruine de Bruin if she could help him understand public perceptions of carbon capture and storage, which is a technology that sequesters carbon dioxide emissions underground.
“The engineers at Carnegie Mellon said, ‘If you know how to talk to teenagers about sexual decisions, surely you know how to talk to adults about carbon capture and storage!’ ” said Bruine de Bruin.
This was her first foray into research related to climate change communications, which is now a major focus of her work.
“In the end, I do use psychology to help people, but just in a different way,” said Bruine de Bruine, who is now a Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Behavioral Science at the USC Price School of Public Policy and USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
As a starting point, she advises climate scientists to use language that people actually understand.
In a project with the USC Dornsife Public Exchange, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation (UNF), she found that the average person does not understand some of the key terminology used in the reports prepared by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The reports need to use everyday language if they are to reach a wider audience of policymakers and the general public.
Our project with the United Nations Foundation asked climate scientists to select terminology from IPCC reports that are central to climate change communications,” said Bruine de Bruin. “And those terms include ‘adaptation,’ ‘mitigation,’ ‘carbon neutral,’ ‘sustainable development.’ And then we did interviews with members of the general public and found that they don’t necessarily know what those terms mean. Or they haven’t heard of them in the context of climate change and interpret them in ways that are not related to climate change.”
The same general challenge also applies to figures, graphs and visualizations about climate change.
“Climate scientists have a lot of complex information to convey,” said Bruine de Bruin. “But a picture is only worth a thousand words if it is understandable. And to be understandable, a graph should show one key message, without additional details or visual clutter.”
Bruine de Bruin points out that even people with advanced reading skills benefit from simplified language.
“If the wording is easy to read, then the ideas will be communicated more clearly, and the information is easier to process,” she said. “It would be nice if you could read a scientific report, put your feet up and have a glass of wine.”
Bruine de Bruin’s most recent research project, using data from The Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll, further underscores the importance of keeping climate change communications simple. This poll asked more than 150,000 people in 142 countries around the world about their climate change concerns, whereas previous research on public perceptions about climate change had focused mostly on the US and Europe.
A key finding is that more than two thirds of people around the world (69%) believed climate change posed a ‘very or somewhat serious threat’ varying from 63% in Eastern Africa, 64% in Central Asia to 75% in North America, to more than 80% in South America, Europe, and Oceania (p. 112, World Risk Poll). The Poll also revealed that people in countries listed as the biggest polluters were less concerned about climate change. In China – the world’s largest producer of carbon – only 23% saw climate change as a serious threat, while in the US – the world’s second biggest carbon emitter – a fifth of people viewed climate change as not a threat at all. This could be due to the complexity of climate change communications, which are often written at the university level and illustrated with complicated graphs.
“One of the biggest predictors of whether people around the world are concerned about climate change is level of education,” said Bruine de Bruin. “So the key takeaway is that if you want to communicate effectively about climate change, especially if you want to do it worldwide where not everybody has gone to university, it’s really important to make it understandable for people at all educational levels.”
In her previous research on home energy use and food choices, Bruine de Bruin has found that even among the most educated and concerned citizens, there are a lot of misconceptions about the best ways to fight climate change. For example, people might strive to reduce product packaging or always turn off the lights, when they could make a far greater impact by committing to meat-free Mondays, line drying their clothing or dialing up their thermostats in the summer.
Bruine de Bruin emphasizes the importance of not only providing people with better information to support their choices, but also making it easy for them to make the choices they want to make. This might be as simple as moving vegetarian options to the top of the menu, making sustainable options the default and the social norm, or designing electricity bills that provide neighborhood comparisons so that people become they that motivated to save more energy than their neighbors.
“A lot of climate communications are still focused on climate deniers, but climate deniers are now in the minority,” said Bruine de Bruin. “The majority in the US is now saying: climate change is happening and affecting my local community. And maybe not everyone, but a lot of people are looking for ways to make changes in their lives and to support national policies that contribute to curbing climate change.”