A 2014 study by Malcolm Wright, Damon Teagle, and Pamela Feetham, titled “A Quantitative Evaluation of the Public Response to Climate Engineering,” provides an important step in the development of our understanding of the public’s reaction to six climate geoengineering alternatives. The survey demonstrates careful attention to method, measurement, and analysis, and its findings are consistent across two samples from two countries. There are, though, important questions that the study leaves unanswered, and issues with the authors’ own readings of their findings.
As is the case with all interesting research, the study encourages us to think of new questions, develop refined methods, and reconsider inferences in light of divergent conceptual perspectives. The article talks about assessing networks of associations for geoengineering alternatives, but most people don’t have existing networks of associations in memory for the geoengineering techniques that are presented, and don’t know how to integrate or evaluate information about these techniques with existing information about related constructs. Perhaps instead of uncovering existing memory structures, the findings may reflect participants’ first impressions of geoengineering techniques based upon the materials provided by the researchers. That isn’t necessarily bad – first impressions matter, and I agree with the study’s authors and with Daniel Kahneman that associative thinking plays a big role in many of our daily choices — but it is an empirical question whether people will make decisions about the fate of the planet based upon associative thinking or if they will make more deliberative choices based upon carefully considering, evaluating, and integrating information as it becomes available.
most people don’t have existing networks of associations in memory for geoengineering techniques, and don’t know how to integrate or evaluate information about these techniques with existing information about related constructs
Because the study investigates impressions based upon new, experimenter-provided materials, it is likely that findings were influenced by differences in the nature of the words and pictures used to describe each technique. Although the authors are to be commended for their efforts to match the specific concept descriptions for format, level of elaboration, concept length, and positive and negative aspects, some techniques are described in ways that seem relatively risky (e.g., “Effects on weather and ecosystem are not well understood),” some in ways that seem more familiar (e.g., “making charcoal from decomposing vegetation” sounds like burning dinner, which we all know is pretty benign), and some with wording reminiscent of science fiction movies (e.g., saying that putting mirrors in outer space may “pose risks for space craft”). It would be interesting to see how sensitive the findings are to the specific words used in the descriptions and whether similar results are obtained for different, objectively equivalent versions of the content. In addition, the illustrations used to depict the geoengineering techniques vary widely in style, level of abstraction, background, and attractiveness. These aesthetic differences may influence reactions to the geoengineering techniques with which they are associated, even though they may have little to do with how the techniques will actually look if and when they are implemented.
Although the attributes provided to participants were determined by qualitative research, some are related to each other, and the attributes selected may not be equally representative of positive and negative predispositions. In addition, different attributes could have been selected –e.g., smelly, harmful to land values — and different attributes may have led to different findings. The attributes selected by participants from those provided by the researchers are analyzed by examining net positivity — i.e., the number of positive attributes selected minus the number of negative attributes selected. This method would be most useful if the attributes were equally weighted, but there is no reason to assume they are. In fact, building on Taylor’s (1991)1 work on the greater importance of negative events, Mittal et al. (1998)2 show that negative attributes are more important than positive attributes as determinants of consumer satisfaction. It will be interesting to see if, when Wright, Teagle, and Feetham publish the findings of the rest of the survey, they find that some of the attributes are more important than others, in the sense that they are more diagnostic of a technique that “would help reduce global warming,” “most people would support,” “is practical with modern technology,” or “might have bad side effects”. In addition, further research is needed to see if different segments of consumers weight attributes or sets of attributes differently – Perhaps avoidance-motivated people place more weight on negative attributes because they seek to minimize risk and the likelihood of disastrous outcomes, while approach-motivated people place more weight on positive attributes because they seek to maximize possible benefits and the likelihood of countering climate change.
The article posits that, “… as SRM [solar radiation management] techniques become more widely known, they are more likely than CDR [carbon dioxide removal] techniques to elicit negative public reactions.” I don’t think we can infer that initial negative responses will predict more negative reactions as more information is gathered. After all, less than half of the participants think they could explain each concept to somebody else, so they know that they don’t know much about any of the techniques. As people learn more about SRM techniques they may like them more or less – depending on their assessment of the new information they acquire. While it is possible that an initial negative impression may result in perceptual bias and subsequent negative attitude, it is equally plausible that SRM techniques currently suffer from being more confusing or less intuitive, and that, as they become better understood or more familiar, they will become more popular. After all, unfamiliar stimuli are better liked after multiple exposures (Zajonc 1968)3, and ad repetition can often enhance brand image.
I don’t think we can infer that initial negative responses will predict more negative reactions as more information is gathered.
The authors correctly point out that the geoengineering techniques studied varied in the degree to which they triggered positive and/ or negative attributes, and so their concept maps had varying skews. The skews for Enhanced Weathering and Cloud Brightening are small, and because brands which are not distinctive often don’t attract attention in the marketplace, the authors propose that these techniques will not garner much attention. While this is an empirical question that will be answered over time, there is also the possibility that, given the importance of the issue, participants may direct more, not less, attention to resolving ambiguities and seeking out information about techniques which are not initially associated with extremely positive or negative attributes.
In its discussion, Wright, Teagle, and Feetham (2014) proposes that surveys should be used to see changes in public response to geoengineering techniques over time. Future research is also needed to determine how to best explain geoengineering techniques to a public that will need to make huge mental leaps to begin to understand how the techniques work, grasp the pros and cons of each, and evaluate how the techniques compare to less radical alternatives. The findings of Gregan-Paxton et al. (2002)4 involving consumer learning about “really new products” suggest that analogical learning may provide a useful start, and that describing geoengineering techniques in ways that encourage the public to draw upon knowledge of related concepts may facilitate learning. It will, however, be important to determine which concepts are most likely to lead to unbiased decision-making and which analogies are most appropriate for encouraging comparisons not only of specific geoengineering techniques, but across the range of options available.
Meryl P. Gardner is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Lerner College. She earned her bachelor’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University and her master’s and doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University. Her research interests involve viewing marketing opportunities through a consumer psychology lens with a focus on the influence of affect on consumer behavior and the role of marketing in socially positive behavior change. Her work has appeared in Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Retailing, Psychology and Marketing, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Marketing Letters, Journal of Small Business Management, Journal of Advertising and other journals.
2. Mittal, V., Ross, W. T. and Baldsare, P. M. (1998) “The asymmetric impact of negative and positive attribute-level performance on overall satisfaction and repurchase intentions,” Journal of Marketing, (62), pp. 33-47.
4. Gregan-Paxton, Jennifer, Jonathan D. Hibbard, Frédéric F. Brunel, and Pablo. Azar (2002), “So That’s What That is: Examining the Impact of Analogy on Consumers’ Knowledge Development for Really New Products,” Psychology & Marketing, 19 (June), 533-550.
The Washington Geoengineering Consortium does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on geoengineering.