Telling it like it is… but differently


A study (.pdf) published in Climatic Change this summer didn’t seem to catch much attention from the climate blogging community (some exceptions here and here but certainly nowhere near the excitement of this week’s “Atlasgate”). Titled “Personality type differences between Ph.D. climate researchers and the general public: implications for effective communication,” the study at first seems to state the obvious: climate researchers process information differently than the general public. My initial reaction was, if that’s all it takes to get grant money to keep publishing studies, it’s no wonder there are rampant accusations about climate change being a hoax.

But the point of the study is not simply that the two groups are different; the implication is that different personality types learn differently and, thus, certain techniques (in communication) are more effective depending on the group you’re trying to reach.

Those in the business world are probably quite familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – it categorizes an individual to a “type” based on their answers to questions surrounding the following factors:

– **Extraversion/Intraversion** (E/I) – how you renew your energy – from outside (other people) or by going inside.
– **Sensing/Intuition** (S/N) – how you process information
– **Thinking/Feeling** (T/F) – the basis on which you make decisions
– **Judging/Perceiving** (J/P) – how you make sense of the world

I won’t get into the details of MBTI here – there are volumes of texts dedicated to that. I just want to focus on the application of Myers-Briggs to information delivery. By improving one’s understanding of how a particular person will react to information, MBTI helps inform the most effective delivery of that information.

A lot of this does sound obvious – these are principles upon which the business world functions. For example, when you market to your consumer base, the messaging will vary depending on whether you are trying to sell the same product to stay-at-home-moms vs. C-level executives. That’s why there are different commercials for different geographic areas at different times of day. Even if you don’t rigorously apply a personality test to make these decisions, the idea of segmenting your customer market and targeting appropriately is just plain old business sense.

While these practices may be second nature to business executives, these are valuable lessons that we – climate change practitioners, advocates, educators – may want to explore.

The study presents two important findings. The first is that scientists rely more on “intuition” while the general public orients toward “sensing”.

The preference for Intuition by early career climate scientists suggests that this group is likely to be more oriented towards future climate impacts than members of the general public, who generally prefer Sensing over Intuition. For Sensors, the current situation is more relevant and more easily appreciated, and past experience and concrete facts are more trusted than future possibilities. Thus, climate impacts beyond the present or readily foreseeable future may lack relevance among the general public…

When communicating with Sensors, it is also important to focus on concrete near-home examples. While the plight of polar bears may be of great concern to Intuitives, Sensors are likely to be motivated more by documented temperature or seasonal changes in their local areas. In other words, with this audience, you may think globally, but you should speak locally.

The second finding deals with how one makes sense of the world, and notes that there is a major difference between how scientists and the general public deal with ambiguity:

…on average, climate change researchers will prefer to reach a decision or come to closure and ‘move on’ to the next step more quickly than the general population. The general population, with a higher proportion of Perceivers, is more likely to see room for doubt, or want to take more time to explore possible alternatives, especially when outcomes are not likely to be positive. When presenting climate change to the general public, it is important for researchers to confirm what information is still unknown and what areas are still being studied.

All this is to say that now is as good a time as any to tweak our message and not get exasperated by the plethora of polls showing the gaps between public consensus and scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change. As long as there continues to be a spreading of misinformation to confuse the public, there is a need for us to recognize that what is obvious to us is not necessarily obvious to others.

For some tips on how one should talk, here’s some food for thought.

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