Published in Canvas: November 10 2013
Tell me about your work and what got you interested in attitude formation.
I’m an environmental psychologist and I’ve been at the University for twelve years. I first became interested in environmental issues during my post-doc, a four year funded “Three University” project in conjunction with the University of East Anglia and the University of Cardiff, with the broad theme being the understanding of risk, specifically on climate change and energy options for the future. I was a named research associate on that project, and was given a free rein to explore the issues I thought were interesting in regards to energy choices and the future in the context of climate change.
On that basis I began to do some work on wind farm opposition. Around the time I started the project, there was an article in the Sheffield Star, a report about a proposed wind farm at Westwood Country Park in the North of Sheffield. Opposition was beginning to form and I found it interesting enough to pursue. I conducted a survey to learn more about the extent of support and opposition, and how perceptions towards climate change related to those opinions. In a general sense, I wanted to identify whether opposition was rooted in commonly held perceptions of selfishness, or whether there were other motivating factors.
I’ve also done some work on energy demand, working on the BIG Energy Upgrade Project, a multi-disciplinary project designed to look at house energy efficiency interventions in some of poorest areas in Yorkshire. I worked on energy demand, particularly what people think about interventions aimed at reducing demand, and what might lead people to accept or reject them.
So you’re attempting to move focus away from assumptions of selfishness?
There is a term, nimbyism, as in NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard). As I was beginning my research, the term was being questioned by academics in terms of its prevalence as an explanation for opposition to things. A lot of the research was pointing to any number of different reasons why people oppose things, other than simply being selfish.
One reason was suggested to be the perception of being excluded from the decision making process, and we found that this was particularly applicable to this context of Westwood Country Park, because Sheffield City Council, who were proposing the areas that would be acceptable for wind farm and other renewable development, had not consulted the public before announcing that the area was suitable for wind farms. A lot of people were surprised to hear this, and it appeared that their exclusion from the decision making process was in part driving their opinions toward whether or not they thought that the turbines, or potential turbines, were a good idea. That is, it was not an opposition to the technology per se that was affecting opinions, but rather a negative response to the decision making process.
How applicable do you think this is to nuclear power, given the recent decision by the government to build a new nuclear power station?
In a separate study, I studied public perceptions of nuclear power. In 2007 there was a national public consultation on the future of nuclear power in the UK, which ended in a pro-nuclear decision. It’s quite interesting in a political context, because the decision to allow new nuclear development in the UK was announced by Gordon Brown to Parliament before the consultation had actually finished. The government was that allegedly adhering to a transparent democratic process, and discussing the future of nuclear power with the general public. Yet it ultimately disregarded that in order to announce a pro-nuclear decision before the conclusion.
The framing of nuclear power as an issue is important. I focused on issues of climate change and energy security, and how that would actually influence people’s perceptions of acceptability in nuclear power. And in short, it didn’t. What’s interesting about attitudes towards nuclear power in the UK is that they are fairly entrenched. We’ve had nuclear power for a long time, and people tend to have fairly strong pre-formed opinions about it. That is, they tend to be for or against it, with few people in between. Because of this, I think that the fairly subtle framing manipulation within my experiment didn’t really do much to alter people’s opinions.
There is of course, the fact that nuclear accidents in Britain, particularly Windscale (Sellafield), occurred so long ago, and were so well covered up, that they never really became pervasive in the public consciousness in the same way as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Even following the Chernobyl disaster, people’s attitudes were fairly resistant to change in the UK. Research into attitudes following Chernobyl identified evidence of what is call “bolstering” among supporters of nuclear power. Bolstering is a psychological technique which allows you to maintain a positive position towards something even when there’s a lot of counter attitudinal information coming in – effectively ‘bigging up’ the positives of a thing.
For example; nuclear power has its risks, but we need it for energy security, it’s clean and provides jobs.
In the case of Chernobyl, ‘differentiation’ was also used by supporters of nuclear power; people differentiated the UK context from the Soviet context. They reasoned that because Chernobyl was a Soviet power station, its employees were perhaps less capable of operating it safely, and that UK power stations are much safer because they are operated by well-trained British people. Differentiation allows you to maintain your supportive position, if indeed you have one, even in receipt of counter attitudinal information that tells you that you should be changing your mind.
We have found similar evidence for bolstering and differentiation in post-Fukushima research. Within some samples that I’ve taken here in the UK, looking at the comparative favourability of different energy technologies, including nuclear power, we found that pre-Fukushima acceptability of nuclear power was relatively comparable with a post-Fukushima sample. That is, there was very little difference in the kinds of options that people would select when invited to create an electricity generating mix for the UK. This was particularly the case for nuclear power, suggesting that again, people’s opinions weren’t really affected by what was ostensibly a very major nuclear accident.
In terms of differentiation it’d be fairly easy for people in the UK to identify the Fukushima disaster as being distinct form the UK context. There was evidence that people saw it as a freak natural disaster that would be very rare in occurring again, and would probably never happen in the UK. They saw it as a perfect storm, which would allow supporters to maintain a positive view of nuclear power in the UK. Of course, opponents, they didn’t change their minds because they were always opposed to nuclear power and Fukushima basically confirmed their opinions.
To what extent do education and environment factor into the formation of attitudes?
A lot of research has been done into climate change attitudes and the changing nature of belief in anthropogenic climate change. There are some interesting trends which suggest that in the UK there is growing scepticism about climate change. In some cases this is suggested to be because of confusion over weather and climate. In the middle of the last decade we went through a few unusual winters, in terms of being quite warm and mild, and the summers were always a washout, and I think people started to look at the weather and think that perhaps this was an indication of climatic change.
What’s happened more recently is that we have had a couple of fairly typical years by British standards. We had a couple of fairly warm summers, including this year, and fairly cold winters before those. This can lead to confusion. If your trying to communicate about climate change, your trying to suggest that global temperatures are increasing and this is a problem; when you have such cold snaps, people start to think, “What are they talking about?” (i.e., how can we have such cold winters if global temperatures are increasing?) There is that confusion over what is climate change and what is weather.
Is this an issue of communication or narrative?
Typically, the media like to present a balanced viewpoint on issues. They want to be unbiased – the classic Today Program concept of presenting both sides of an argument, and there is evidence to suggest that in terms of climate change, this leads to confusion. Certainly the IPCC reports tend to suggest that the vast majority of scientists and the scientific community are behind the idea that the climate is changing and that humans are responsible for this. Indeed, the recent report that came out increased the level of certainty up to about as high as you can get as a scientist (95%) and that humans are having an impact on the environment in terms of climate change through emissions.
There are some dissenters of course?
There are people who are sceptical about it. In media reports you’ll get a description from the pro side, the believers if you want to call them that. Then there’ll be someone who says “Hang on, we need to bring in a sceptic as well.” This can lead to perceptions amongst the public that the level of dissension in the scientific community is greater than actually exists.
What you find about people’s attitudes is that most people like to think they are right most of the time. When they are faced with ambiguous information, they tend to pick through it and emphasise the bits that are relatively supportive with their own view points on something, and suppress the arguments that run counter. Essentially, this is confirmation bias, and if you’re presenting mixed information to people, not only does it undermine trust in the scientific community, because it suggests greater disagreement, it also allows people with different viewpoints to find support for their arguments, meaning that attitude change is much slower in pace, and much slower than if news reports were more representative of current scientific consensus on the issue.
Do you think that people react against politicians who emphasise the negatives of the situation, or attempt to shoulder personal responsibility on individuals in terms of climate change responsibility?
The personal responsibility concept is an interesting one. The climate change mitigation effort is essentially a global problem that needs a global solution; it requires that people to pull together. What you find is that, granted, some people don’t believe that climate change exists, or is happening, or that humans are anything to do with it, and they’re not going to change their minds. There are people who do think that climate change exists, and do think that humans are responsible, but will believe it to be someone else’s problem and not theirs.
The classic buck passing that you get can operate at a national level. The USA will say: “Why should we take action when the Chinese aren’t going to take action?” Part of this might hinge upon apparent trade-offs between environment and the economy. Being environmentally conscious can cost more than maintaining a business as usual approach to things. Countries like the US might not wish to invest in more environmentally sound technology and policy if other countries aren’t going to do the same.
You can see this within various countries. When the economy is suffering, environmental issues tend to take a back seat. With the economic downturn, focus turns on the economy and how to regenerate the economy, and environmental factors take a back seat. When the economy is buoyant, environmental issues come to the fore.
This doesn’t mean that they aren’t concerned about the environment though?
People have hierarchies of concern. If you ask people what their major concerns are, it’s often more personal, more short term, more tangible concerns that feature more predominately in their concern hierarchy, such as financial concerns, how they put food on the table, and how they pay for energy bills. It’s a misconception to state that people therefore don’t care about the environment; it’s just that comparatively they have other concerns that are prominent.
With that in mind you can see that there are going to be individual differences in where people place the environment and climate change amongst the things they are concerned about, and the priorities for taking action.
Importantly, when it comes to making sacrifices or comprises in the ways we live, people are keen to see equity (i.e., everyone putting in the effort). Invariably, when people come at a situation with competing priorities, there will be times when people might thing: “Why should I take action if my neighbour isn’t taking action? Why should I take action now to compromise my life style when future generations might not do the same?”
It taps into some of the classic social psychological theories around bystander apathy and the diffusion of responsibility. If everyone thinks that it’s not their responsibility to act, then no one takes action and nothing gets done. You see this in emergency scenarios when an accident occurs. Everyone sits backs, but as soon as one person takes action, other people come in and help.
Is that similar with climate change do you think?
To a large extent. To take action is costly, and being green is often more expensive than not being green. If you think about Green Tariffs, you often pay a bit of a premium, and it takes more time and effort to separate your rubbish in terms of recycling, and you need to go to the recycling centre.
Humans to an extent are a bit like electricity as they often follow the path of least resistance. You’ve got classic models of planned behaviour, which suggest that perceived behavioural control is one of the fundamental influences of determining people’s actions. If something is easy to do, as long as people think it’s worthwhile doing it, and they think there is social support, they will tend to do it.
Opposition to wind farms now seems to be pervasive. Why is this so, and is the debate skewed?
Wind farms have their place, and their use. They shouldn’t be the be all and end all of renewable generation in the UK. They aren’t the best technology, but they are a good technology for some locations. The problem is that there has been a real focus on wind, particularly onshore wind, because it’s a comparatively mature and cheap renewable technology. There are various bits of legislation out there, the current one being the Renewables Obligation Order, which requires that energy companies source a certain amount of their electricity from renewable sources. That increases year on year in order to create an expansion in the renewables industry in the UK.
There are changes afoot. Because of the relatively maturity and fairly economic nature of wind farms, there has been a real focus on building them in the UK, as opposed to other technologies, which are slightly further behind in terms of being more costly. Off shore wind for example is a lot more costly. Ostensibly it’s slightly better in terms of energy yields, because you can have bigger turbines, and the wind is slightly more reliable offshore. But the maintenance and the operation costs are much higher, because you can’t just drive up to them in order to fix them; you need to have a specialist boat.
Some people do question whether or not wind power is really the renewable option that we should be pursuing. There’s been a lot of political debate around different renewables recently and what we should and shouldn’t be investing in. The debate on wind power came to a head last year at the Renewable UK conference (the industry body for wind farms and other renewables), where I was asked to give a talk on wind farm opposition and why people chose to oppose wind farms.
At the conference we had a keynote speech from Alex Salmond, who was bigging up wind farms, because Scotland has a really pro-active renewables policy. They want to source the majority, if not all, their energy from renewable sources by 2030. They benefit from having a lot of resources, but also relatively few people. So they can afford to do it, and there is a real push there for wind farms.
At the same time however, Ed Davy, the UK Energy Minister, stated that he didn’t think that wind farms were all that good; that we’d had too much of a focus on wind farms in the UK, and that we should invest in other things. You had two conflicting political figures, who were ostensibly talking about the same thing; UK energy policy. One that was very pro wind and one that was fairly anti-wind, and so this leads again to a mixed picture being painted by our leaders. Perhaps what we need in the UK is a bit more non-partisan politics, and more joined up thinking, with regards to energy policy.
Indeed, because energy is such a political issue, we have not really seen the investment in the UKs energy generation and distribution infrastructure that we need. New power stations take time to build and as we have a privatised energy sector, progress can be slow. Companies need assurances in order to invest and the UK government has struggled to make such assurances in recent times. For example, we recently had the announcement from David Cameron on the new nuclear power station; this is good news for those who wish to see re-investment in nuclear power. However decisions like whether or not we should build new nuclear power stations should have been made about ten years ago.