Hope versus fear: how do you balance an effective campaign message?

The relative parts of hope and fear, optimism and pessimism, plans and threats that should go into a political message has been a regular matter of debate through various recent referendums and their postmortems.

It’s not an issue just for party politics and referendum campaigns, however. It’s a broader campaigning issues too, and hence the piece in The Guardian looking at the balance between hope and fear amongst campaigners against climate change:

There’s a debate in climate circles about whether you should try to scare the living daylights out of people, or give them hope – think images of starving polar bears on melting ice caps on the one hand, and happy families on their bikes lined with flowers and solar-powered lights on the other…

Both sides are wrong, from a psychological standpoint. Emotions are complicated and can vary tremendously from person to person. Trying to crudely manipulate them doesn’t work.

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That’s the conclusion from behavioral scientists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Daniel Chapman, Brian Lickel and Ezra Markowitz, who, in a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, seek to bring the lessons of psychology to bear on communicating the importance climate change….

For instance, though we’ve been conditioned to think of anger as an undesirable emotion, research has shown it to be an important emotion for motivating action in the face of social injustice. And the pairing of certain feelings, like fear and efficacy, can be helpful too.

Like a patient who’s given both a diagnosis and a course of treatment, people respond better to risks when given both a reason and a way to act. In this sense, it seems the hope and fear camps of the climate debate are each seeing only part of the puzzle.

But even in places where the science is relatively strong, researchers caution against simplistic applications. Rote formulas like “three parts hope to one part scary” won’t translate from one person to another. Indeed, to use such information responsibly requires, if not some level of sophistication, then at least considerable forethought, as well as a concerted, ongoing effort to meet people where they are.

You can read the piece in full here, and of course for more on effective messaging see 101 Ways To Win An Election, especially for the role of elephants.

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