Psychologists study CCL’s approach

Social psychologists David Sherman of UC Santa Barbara and Leaf Van Boven of University of Colorado at Boulder

Psychologists study CCL’s approach

By Elise Koepke

How do psychological factors shape the dynamic between citizen advocates and the decision-makers they seek to influence? Social psychologists David Sherman of UC Santa Barbara and Leaf Van Boven of University of Colorado at Boulder published a study last month assessing the psychological framework of climate activism and engagement in policymaking. Last week, they joined us to share the findings of their research and offer strategies for effective climate lobbying.

What’s stopping bipartisan climate policy?

Using the lens of social psychology, in prior research Sherman and Van Boven have grappled with the questions, “What leads to environmental behavior?” and “How can we understand the barriers to having effective climate policies?” 

In their 2018 publication on bipartisan support of climate policy, they found that the biggest hindrance to environmental policy is not actually a rejection of climate science. “Climate change belief is not sufficient to explain why there has not been bipartisan policy. There needs to be further understanding beyond just changing people’s beliefs,” Sherman explained. 

What really hinders bipartisan policy are the “psychological barriers” of both activists and legislators. The researchers identified two major psychological barriers to broader bipartisan support:

    1. Placing party over policy. A climate policy can fall flat when people emphasize partisan concerns instead of the fundamental issues it addresses. Van Boven pointed to an experimental study that gauged members of both parties’ responses to the same policy. The results? The study found that people reacted to “whether it was a Democratic policy or Republican policy over and above thinking about the policy itself.”
    2. An exaggerated sense of partisanship. “People believe that other people are way more swayed by partisan considerations then they are themselves,” Van Boven said. Unfortunately, these faulty perceptions can make it difficult for people to support legislation that crosses party lines. “Exaggerated partisanship creates this false norm that can foment further partisan dispute,” he explained.

A framework for overcoming barriers

In their most recent study, Sherman and Van Boven identified strategies to overcome these barriers in the context of citizen advocacy, like the lobbying that CCL does. “The goals of persuasion are very clear,” Sherman said. “You have the opportunity to express and maybe even change norms.”

The researchers identified four particularly powerful strategies:

  • Affirmation. A major way to reduce inflexibility when presenting new or opposing ideas to your Congressional officer is to affirm shared values. Using an affirming context and expressing respect for a decision-maker can help them feel open-minded, reducing their defensiveness and encouraging open dialogue. 
  • Communicating descriptive norms. “One of the most powerful motivators of action is social norms,” Sherman observed. Providing accurate information about who else supports climate action (such as community leaders) helps to dispel misinformation about climate policy. Communicating that the public sees environmental policy as a priority helps to eliminate fears of being an outlier in political groups.
  • Emphasizing legacy. Because it’s natural for people to think primarily in the short-term and about themselves, it’s important to underscore the long-term effects of climate change. According to Van Boven, “we can help people become more concerned about other times and other people by inviting them to think about their legacy, to think about how the actions they take today will impact future generations.”
  • Recognizing the immediacy of climate change. “Climate change is no longer something that will happen only in the future,” said Van Boven. Connecting the dots between climate change, recent extreme weather events, and economic costs puts climate change in context, making it relevant. Building a sense of urgency can also provide additional emotional motivation and serve as an impetus for taking action.

CCL as a case study

Using responses collected from hundreds of CCL volunteers before and after meeting with politicians in Washington, D.C., during CCL’s November 2018 lobbying, the researchers analyzed how citizen activists recognize and implement these four strategies. They also reviewed CCL’s lobbying training resources and identified where each strategy falls within our current conceptual framework, determining that:

  • Affirmation aligns with CCL’s methodology of establishing shared values focusing on optimism, building relationships, and remaining nonpartisan.
  • Norms aligns with CCL’s strategy of being a trusted messenger, “dispelling the false norms and replacing those with the accurate information about how much popular support there is for climate policy,” Sherman noted.
  • Legacy aligns with CCL’s goal of establishing the long term costs of climate change and underscoring the benefits of enacting climate policy.
  • Immediacy aligns with CCL’s emphasis on discussing the connection between extreme weather and climate to highlight the immediate dangers of leaving climate change unaddressed.

Results and findings

Of the CCL activists who contacted their congressional offices, about half met with Republicans and half met with Democrats. The most widely used strategy was affirmation, with almost 97% of participants reporting establishing shared values. Including information about norms was a close second at 85%. The other two strategies (legacy and immediacy) were reported much less frequently in these particular lobby meetings, with 30% of CCLers using neither. 

While the affirmation and shared values strategy was the most common approach, its use appears to be correlated with perceived initial support. In other words, the findings suggest CCL activists are more likely to employ affirmation when they think the office already supports the policy they’re pushing for. Van Boven points out the irony that “people are using it less in a context where it’s likely to be the most effective.”

So, which strategy did advocates feel was the most effective in increasing support? Though it was implemented the least frequently among the four strategies, long-term legacy was the strongest predictor of whether a meeting attendee felt they moved the office towards further support for climate action. “One reason why legacy may have been successful is that it emphasizes not just the long term costs of climate change but also the long term economic benefits for generations to come from putting a price on carbon,” Sherman explained.

Implications for advocacy & training

The paper has major implications for understanding CCL’s framework and efficiently utilizing advocacy strategies.“One simple suggestion supported by a growing body of psychological research is that it’s very effective to have a checklist to assess whether you are engaging in all the strategies you intended in the meeting,” Van Boven said.

This process, called structured introspection, is a quick procedure that can assist you in bypassing the psychological barriers to climate policy. Pilot studies have shown that using this framework can reduce feelings of partisanship and influence behavioral changes amongst decision-makers. It focuses on:

  • Structure – Prior to meeting with a decision-maker, create a list of the strategies you want to implement to be an effective climate communicator.
  • Introspection – Refer back to your strategies as you engage with a decision-maker. Repeatedly ask yourself, “Am I enacting this strategy in the way I intended to?” If the answer is no, take the opportunity to fix it before the meeting is over.

Fortunately, CCL provides this very structure and checklist support with the Meeting Plan Template used in our meeting preparations.

Remember, Sherman says, “Citizen activists are important because they translate the public concern about climate to decision makers.” As you employ these strategies with elected officials, your climate advocacy will be even more effective, and the whole world will benefit. 

Interested in learning more about the intersection between climate policy and psychological research? Register here for a free conference on Oct. 23 featuring Sherman and Van Boven’s team’s paper, or check out their appearance on CCL’s national call from Sept. 2018.

 Elise Koepke is a communications intern with Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She is a recent graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she studied Earth Science.