We like bad news. Or so this recent study published by nature human behavior would have us know. The authors of this paper examined over 100,000 viral news stories and found that most people clicked on headlines with negative words that instilled fear more often than they did on those with positive words. The reason for this, they explain, is somewhat coded in our genes.

“The tendency for individuals to attend to negative news reflects something foundational about human cognition—that humans preferentially attend to negative stimuli across many domains” they explain. They go on to elaborate that humans, from infancy, focus their attention on the negative stimuli in their environment. “Negative information may be more ‘sticky’ in our brains,” they say.

By Adrien Coquet from the Noun Project

What’s this got to do with climate change communication you ask? Quite a lot, I’d say.

There is no doubt that the climate crisis is the biggest challenge that humanity has ever faced. As we collectively blunder through it, one of the toughest aspects of it is figuring out how to communicate about this crisis. Clearly, we are gluttons for punishment because we evidently love bad news and need fear to get us to move. Just like in the old days, when Neanderthals lurking around our caves, forced us to develop tools that may have driven the Neanderthals to extinction, and allowed us, homo sapiens, to reign strong.

But when it comes to climate change reporting, too much of it causes climate anxiety and fear for their future – especially among the youth. Some experts believe this can be a good thing and stimulate action among young people. At the same time, paradoxically, all this bad news is also causing a rise in news avoidance. So then is fear the new four-letter word in climate change reporting?

If not fear, then what?

Should we have more hopeful communications? Dr Matthew Hornsey and Dr Kelly Fielding caution against messages of hope. According to them, “Distress is strongly correlated with mitigation motivation; hope is not”. In their research, they found that messages informing people of any form of happy progress somehow made people even more complacent. This doesn’t really shock anyone, I imagine. Then is hope the new four-letter word in climate change communication?

Not necessarily. It depends on what kind of hope you’re selling. Human-rights strategist and communications expert and founder of hope-based communication, Thomas Coombes advocates the use of solutions in hope-based communications. While the Drs Hornsey and Fielding found that positive messages of progress that inspired hope led to complacency, they also found that positive messaging around solutions also led to inaction. People just didn’t want to engage in solutions if there was no real urgent need for them to.

So, for some, fear might be the new four-letter word in climate change communication, and for others, it might be hope. I personally believe we need a healthy dose of both with a smattering of solutions. Simply because no one is going to try to put out the fire if we all believe we’re going to surely burn – even if the water hoses are right in front of us.

We need the purveyors and messages of hope and vision to assure us that even if there is a high likelihood of all of us burning, there is a small chance that if we all pick up the hoses in front of us, big or small, we just might be able to put out the fire.

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