Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Desdemona groupthink trap

In Shakespeare's play "Othello", Desdemona tries to help her friend Cassius, succeeding only in reinforcing the suspicion of her husband, Othello, that she is betraying him with Cassius. Accordingly, I proposed the name of "Desdemona's trap" (or also "Desdemona effect") to the phenomenon that occurs when arguing in favor of something leads to the opposite effect, that is reinforces the negative opinion of the target. It happens all the time with climate change.

Now, I found that a paper by Dan Kahan (see also here) shows exactly this effect and measures it experimentally. As you can see in the figure above, there exists a consistent fraction of people for whom increased scientific literacy; e.g. having heard more about the problem of climate change, makes them become more skeptical and tend to dismiss the whole idea as a hoax.

It is the Desdemona trap clearly identified: the more these people know, the less they understand. It is an effect that agrees with the well known say "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". They are not knowledgeable enough to understand the science of climate change, but they are knowledgeable enough to understand the denialist arguments about climate change. That makes them able to indulge in one of the most cultivated arts in the human discourse: that of deceiving oneself.

That is not the case for everyone and Kahan identifies those who are most likely to fall into to the Desdemona trap as people having a "hierarchical" vision of life,. In this, Kahan seems to agree with the findings by Lewandowsky indicating that deniers exist mostly within a mindset that can be defined as "conspiratorial". As I argued in a previous post, there is nothing fundamentally wrong in suspecting the worse, but it is an attitude that may well backfire (as in another common say, "too much of a good thing").

In the end, anyway, the problem is not so much the individual vision: "hierarchical" or "egalitarian" attitudes are just triggers that, as Kahan himself says in his talk, start a self-reinforcing loop that makes individuals conform to the ideas of the group they feel they belong to. So, the Desdemona trap eventually evolves into the "Desdemona groupthink trap" - more difficult and more stubborn than the same problem at the individual level. Once a group has evolved into accepting a certain idea, it is impossible to change that idea by facts and logic. Attempts of doing so will only reinforce the group's attitude by making them suspicious that their opponents are their enemies, or anyway perpetrating a hoax on them. 

You see? The problem is wholly described in a sentence by Pogo that has become another common say: "we have found the enemy and he are us". We have to beat the "Desdemona groupthink trap." Not easy. Ideas, anyone?


  1. In looking at rapidly end of the world brought about by runaway global warming, "facts and logic" have failed us completely. "Reason" has allowed oil companies to plunder the planet. "Logic" dictates that it is okay to cut down forests as long as huge profits are made.

    Forget logic and reason. Try rage and madness instead. Screw reasoning with denialist. Why waste your breath? Instead we should be taking to the streets in mass uprisings. If they can do it Egypt and Turkey, why can't we do it here? It is only the fate of all life that is in danger. Maybe that is worth some rage and fighting for.

  2. I regret to say this but I am not that enthusiastic about the above analysis. It is certainly interesting and some of the conclusions are also plausible but I am not sure whether what Kahan does is confirm the existence or the validity of the Desdemona Trap nor is it operationally clear and unequivocal who would have a "hierarchical" or an "egalitarian: view of life and whether these are primary variables or secondary variables which are the result of some other underlying more primary and independent causal variables.

    (social science is tricky and causalities between primary and secondary, and dependent and independent variables -often also not that clearly or operationally defined- are often very difficult to establish)

    But more importantly I don't see very clearly how the above conclusions (even if completely correct) can be operationalized into a more effective climate change communications strategy. Since a communication strategy will by necessity have to have some general elements too and cannot be tailored to every single sub-group or sub-public which is being targeted.

    And all of this (communication strategies of one kind or another) is even further away from what I consider to be the ultimate need and key objective which is to urgently get a climate change emergency response off the ground. If we spend the next ten years communicating more effectively and cleverly and don't work directly to establish a possible emergency response....(for which we now may be too late anyway) I don't think our net historical impact will be very positive.

    Moreover there will always be SOME set of people who for whatever reasons will remain unconvinced or even increasingly recalcitrant and I don't think we should spend too much time worrying about how best to communicate with them. They -just like us and everyone else - is ultimately responsible for themselves. They will either be on the right side of history or on the wrong one. It has happened before.

    But as I said all of the above is also quite interesting and certainly worth studying more (by social scientists) but perhaps not so much by climate change and other environmental activists.

    We also have not yet tested another assumption in my opinion. Which is that if more people were convinced of the reality and of the need to do something about climate change that this would result in governments and corporations and consumers actually doing more. (and doing more in time)