Misrepresenting Public Opinion

The IPPR’s spin on its latest report – echoed in the media – misleads the public, and damages efforts to mobilise action against climate change.

Now published on Climate Safety.

One of the most basic, but also one of the most important problems in the way people respond to climate change is the so-called “bystander effect”. This phenomenon, widely noted in the social science literature, concerns the way in which people’s responses are influenced by the responses of those around them, with various experiments demonstrating just how strongly people’s tendencies towards social conformity affect their behaviour. This even seems to apply in situations as cut-and-dried as simply stating which line on a chart is the longest; or as potentially life-threatening as watching thick smoke begin to pour through the bottom of a doorway.(1)

In a problem such as climate change, a further barrier is presented, in that no one individual’s actions can come close to making a decisive difference on their own. This potentially raises the spectre of the “free rider” problem: what collectively would be a rational response – taking action – becomes irrational for an individual if no other bystander seems to have any inclination to act. As James Garvey puts it, “The sea level will be where it will be in 2050 whether this wine bottle is recycled or not. So why bother?”(2)

One wider implication of these effects concerns how we react to media reports on surveys of public opinion. As campaign marketing analyst Chris Rose has put it, “the findings of qualitative and quantitative surveys of public opinion and perceptions … have a feedback effect on the public”. “Normative reinforcement (everyone is doing it, so I will too)” has a significant impact, particularly among the large swaths of the public who “don’t want to be seen to be ‘out of step’”. Consequently, they can also have a knock-on effect “on the willingness of politicians and others to take action to try and curb climate-changing pollution”.

Reporting on polls also has a wider political effect in and of itself. As Rose notes,

“These days most politicians seek to stay in close step with ‘public opinion’. To detect ‘public opinion’ politicians rely on the media and on polls, while the media do their best to force politicians to take a position on polls. If ‘public opinion’ seems to be ‘rejecting’ climate change as a proposition, most politicians are reluctant to act.”(3)

What, then, is the relevance of this? Last Thursday, the Institute for Public Policy Research released a new report, which has received a certain amount of media attention.(4) The Ecologist, in an article reproduced on the Guardian’s Environment site, provocatively declared “Public bored by climate change, says IPPR”. Further disquieting information follows: according to the magazine, the IPPR’s study finds that “The general public are resentful, cynical and resigned when it comes to the issue of climate change”, and that “[u]nless they can be persuaded to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles, it will be impossible to meet new emissions targets”.(5)

The Scotsman waxes resentful, its headline announcing: “Public ‘bored of preaching by smug, self-righteous greens’”. According to the paper, the IPPR “found that climate change-related communications, products and policies simply caused most people to switch off”, and that “people were tired of and bored with hearing about climate change”. Online outlets have covered the report in similar fashion.(6)

On its own merits, the study itself is basically a good one, using mainstream marketing methods to glean some potentially useful and important demographic information. Far more problematic – to put it mildly – are the conclusions being drawn from it. Invariably these focus on what the report is alleged to have discovered about the general public. The picture it paints is not an encouraging one, and is likely to be depressing, if not deeply demoralising, for anyone concerned about or active on the issue of climate change.

What is shocking about this is that the study’s conclusions are not about the general public. Indeed, given its methodology, there are no conclusions it can infer about the general public. The theoretical  basis of the study is a system of psychological segmentation called “values modes”, pioneered by market research agency Cultural Dynamics, which has been applied on behalf of a range of major corporate, Governmental and NGO bodies. The system divides the population up into three broad categories: “Pioneers” (who account for 40% of the UK population), “Settlers” (accounting for 30%) and “Prospectors” (another 30%).

This study is based on five samples (four containing 7 people and another one containing 10). These samples were not only derived entirely from individuals falling within the “Prospector” grouping, but were actually drawn from one of four smaller sub-sets within it – a group referred to as “The Now People”. According to Cultural Dynamics, “Now People” constitute around 10.6% of the UK population.(7) On the basis of a small sample of people representing one tenth of the UK, in other words, claims are being made by major media outlets about the attitudes and beliefs of the entire British population.

More importantly, this is also a group with a particular type of values, attitudes and orientations. Any such extrapolation will therefore inevitably project these onto the whole of the UK.

So what are the qualities that define “Now People”? First of all, as we’ve noted, they are a sub-group within “Prospectors” – a group of people who generally “have esteem or ‘outer directed’ needs: they live for today, and seek psychological rewards in status, fashion, success and recognition by others. They underpin consumer society” (my emphasis).(8)

As for “Now People” specifically,

“The motto for these people could be ‘We want the world, and we want it now!’ Now People have a hunger for life, and want to devour it. Life is a party to be enjoyed, and they want to be at the centre of it. They have a large need for the approval of others, and so have great empathetic social skills. They attract others to them. They look for the flash and intensity in situations.

“Because of their high level of motivation to consume, and their prominent position within social circles, Now People are drivers of fashions and trends, meaning that they are a particularly powerful subsection of the population when it comes to determining consumption-related behaviours. For this reason they are often the target of companies’ marketing campaigns” (my emphasis).(9)

We are therefore looking at a particularly status-driven, consumerist segment of the population within a larger status-driven, consumerist bloc. That these people were noticeably “bored” and “turned off” by talk of climate change, resented the guilt that environmental appeals made them feel about their lifestyles, and therefore found “smug” and “self-satisfied” greens irritating is maybe not such a shock. That the media are extrapolating from the attitudes of this small, hyper-consumerist segment to the general population is. Or at least should be.

Yet not all the blame can be laid at the door of the media outlets covering this study. The seeds of this misrepresentation are unmistakeably present in the way the report has been “packaged” and sold to the press. The report itself is subtitled, in a thoroughly misleading fashion, “How the public thinks lower-carbon behaviour could be made mainstream” (my emphasis); while the IPPR’s original press release, despite containing one footnote’s worth of more detailed information on its methodology, jumps between the description “mainstream consumers”, “people” and “most people” in describing the demographic from which these findings were drawn.(10)

Why the report’s findings were massaged for public consumption in this way is anyone’s guess. But it seems highly plausible that “findings” about the public as a whole are more easily and immediately comprehensible; more interesting; and more saleable to the media – thus helping raise the profile of the IPPR and increase the impact of the study.

Unfortunately, as a result of these distortions, its impact is now likely to be highly negative. The utterly misleading pessimism with which the study has been publicised has very likely just dealt another blow to public resolve in engaging with climate change. For (as committed activists are likely to reason) if after all this time, in this pivotal year, the public are still not “getting” it, what hope that they will any time soon? And (as the wider public are likely to reason) if no-one else is engaging with the problem, why on earth should I?

Notes

(1) On scientific evidence of social conformity, see Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2009. Johann Hari talks about Darley and Latané’s “smoke” experiment in the context of climate change in “The climate camp – and a psychological experiment”, johannhari.com, 19 August 2007; http://www.johannhari.com/archive/article.php?id=1172. Stanley Cohen explores the “bystander effect” further in States of Denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering, Polity Press, 2001.

(2) James Garvey, “We broke it. So we own it.” Guardian, 7 September 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/sep/07/climate-change-10-10. For more on the “free rider” problem, see “Richard Tuck on Free Riding”, Philosophy Bites, February 10 2008; http://philosophybites.com/2008/02/richard-tuck-on.html.

(3) Chris Rose, “Sustaining Disbelief: Media Pollism and Climate Change”, campaignstrategy.org, August 2007; http://www.campaignstrategy.org/articles/sustaining_disbelief.pdf.

(4) Reg Platt and Simon Retallack, Consumer Power: How the public thinks lower-carbon behaviour could be made mainstream. IPPR, 17 September 2009; http://www.ippr.org/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=698.

(5) “Public bored by climate change, says IPPR”, Ecologist, 17 September 2009; http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/321419/public_bored_by_climate_change_says_ippr.html; Guardian, 17 September 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/17/public-bored-climate-change.

(6) “Public ‘bored of preaching by smug, self-righteous greens’”, Scotsman, 17 September 2009; http://news.scotsman.com/uk/Public-39bored-of-preaching-by.5654345.jp; “Green campaigners warned about public apathy”, Big Green Smile, 18 September 2009; http://www.biggreensmile.com/green-news/climate-change/green-campaigners-warned-about-public-apathy$10186.aspx; “Public ‘turned off by climate change’”, publicservice.co.uk, 17 September 2009; http://www.publicservice.co.uk/news_story.asp?id=10678.

(7) Chris Rose and Pat Dale, “Using Values Modes”, Cultural Dynamics; http://www.campaignstrategy.org/articles/usingvaluemodes.pdf.

(8) Platt and Retallack, ibid., p. 11.

(9) Ibid.

(10) “Public switched off by climate change, warns ippr”, IPPR press release, 17 September 2009. http://www.ippr.org/pressreleases/?id=3724.

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One Response to “Misrepresenting Public Opinion”

  1. Word gets around « Convenient Lies Says:

    […] gets around By timbird The damaging piece of disinformation recently put out by the IPPR continues to trickle steadily out into the public domain. According to […]

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