Explorations and ideas at the intersection between Evolution and Ecology

The (Mis)use of Messaging in Biodiversity Loss Prevention


One of the challenges of biodiversity conservation is evoking a sense of place and an urgency of action to people. When we can’t even agree on a definition of what biodiversity is, it makes it all the more difficult to tell the public they should give a damn. Nonetheless, scientists keep hammering it in. Biodiversity good. Industry bad. The monotony of the debate can be deafening at times.

In my opinion, the problem is two-fold. Connecting people to the benefits of conservation - why it is in THEIR interest - and marketing the concept to industry and government. Both of these involve how we communicate these concepts to the public. At the core of this is how do people respond to messaging strategies. Wallace J. Nichols wrote a wonderful essay on Oceanophilia in 2009 where he urged that we need to more strongly grasp the neurological basis for conservation in order to really take a foothold on this issue.

“Economists, marketers and politicians recognize that deep-seated, inscrutable emotions, not rationality, are what rule human behavior. Aided by cognitive neuroscientists, these fields have begun to understand how our deepest, most primordial emotions drive virtually every decision we make, from what we buy to the candidates we elect.  To my way of thinking, if the lessons of cognitive neuroscience can be used for the crass purposes of influencing what people buy and how they vote, why not use such knowledge for ocean conservation?  I believe we can.  And, I believe we should.”

Ecosystem services are very real economic outcome from biodiversity conservation, but difficult to define and relate. The variety of benefits we receive extends not only to our personal well being (e.g. clean water, food, medicines, recreation), but also to protecting our property and infrastructure (e.g. coastal and soil reinforcement, storm buffer, flood prevention). These values are not easily calculable, though. Some services are obvious, such as food, raw materials, erosion prevention and soil formation. Others are less obvious, such as nutrient cycling, climate regulation, and genetic resources. Over a decade ago, Constanza and colleagues (1997) attempted to evaluate the worth of various ecosystem service categories by extensively reviewing the literature and their market value. While it is a very rough approximation, they estimated we receive about $33.3 trillion (in 1994 dollars) worth of services from the environment. A breakdown, courtesy of the World Resources Institute, is provided below to get a sense of the contributions.

This is clearly a vital component of the everyday components of modern human living. One of the major findings of the extensive Millenium Assessment report in 2003 was that “although many individuals bene?t from the actions and activities that lead to biodiversity loss and ecosystem change, the costs borne by society of such changes is often higher.” In other words, the costs associated with human alterations to ecosystems are often high enough or irreversible such that the monetary impact is greater than benefit that we would receive. In the United States alone, the ecosystem services in Constanza and colleagues (1997) were valued at nearly twice the 1994 US gross national product of $18 trillion. This new way of thinking was revolutionary because we could communicate easily in the language of money – a language that most people can grasp. Or, at least, it should have been.

While the science was speaking to economics and ecology, the communication hasn’t changed in decades. Environmentalists often use a sort of awe and scare tactic. Lush, flowery edens with cascading waterfalls give way to barren, smoggy wastelands with dramatic narration, “What happens when this all goes away?”  The idea is that the viewer hopefully is shocked into submission and goes off and does something to save the planet. Most likely donate money to a cause or sign a petition to stop proposed environmentally harmful practices.

How can the sciences of economics and ecology merge to produce an appropriate message that people can relate to about protecting ecosystems and preserving biodiversity? Obviously, there is no easy answer and messages resonate differently with different types of people.  Negative messaging tells us that we out of control and there is something wrong with us and we can only be better if do X. Conversely, positive messaging empowers us, puts the decision-making control in our hands without telling us that we will be negatively impacted unless do X. Each communication strategy has its audience and can be context-dependent, but in many studies of health-changing behavior positive messaging tends to get better results.

But crafting a message for someone without understanding their social environment can be misleading. Many people will behave in ways that harm them, even if they know better, just because it is what the rest of their world is doing and they don’t want to stand out. Blanton and colleagues (2001) call this deviance-regulation. How people regulate themselves tends to be based more on perceived social consequences of conforming. To illustrate this, let me highlight one of the tests in the Blanton paper. They asked individuals how likely they are to get a flu shot (scale of 1 to 7, highest being most likely) after reading articles that framed the issue positively (getting the shot is a considerate and responsible thing to do) or negatively (people who do not get shots are selfish, careless, and irresponsible). Another article that was read set the stage for the normative behavior in the population as either healthy (most got the shot) or unhealthy (only a few got the shot).

As you can see, people reacted more strongly to the deviant message frame. That is, when the behavior was the norm, negative messaging garnered a stronger response. On the other hand, when behavior was not the norm positive messaging garnered the stronger response. The message is placed in the context of what the rest of the target population’s social environment is doing. This is a powerful concept for understanding why negative message campaigns are not always working in biodiversity protection. Take for instance the following video trailer for the feature-length documentary, The Call of Life. It evokes a world in peril entirely caused by human activities. Though it appears well-produced and features many respected and well-known scientific individuals, it is classic environmentalist negative messaging.

Who is the audience of this film? Is it intended for the fence-sitting public? If we understand their message in the context of deviance-regulation, this film would do well in a population that was supportive of biodiversity loss protection. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the United States. People tend to be split on environmental issues down political lines (with notable exceptions, of course) and this country is more or less split fairly evenly along the political spectrum. So, this message will resonate with half of the population, except that is in the half that already lives in a world where they supportive about biodiversity loss prevention. In other words, they are preaching to the choir.

Environmental messages need to break through the communication barrier to the other half of the population that doesn’t know that they care about the environment. Since they are not supportive of the issue, negative messaging does not easily sway them. And this is where I believe ecosystem services valuation can play a much stronger role. Those who are unsupportive of biodiversity loss issues are more than likely to be supportive of saving money and property, uncovering new medical advances or more efficiently and safely gathering raw materials. This is positive messaging. By changing your behavior - going against the norm – they view themselves trendsetters, improving their lives.

ResearchBlogging.orgBlanton, H., Stuart, A., & Van den Eijnden, R. (2001). An Introduction to Deviance-Regulation Theory: The Effect of Behavioral Norms on Message Framing Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27 (7), 848-858 DOI: 10.1177/0146167201277007

Costanza, R., d'Arge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Limburg, K., Naeem, S., O'Neill, R., Paruelo, J., Raskin, R., Sutton, P., & van den Belt, M. (1997). The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital Nature, 387 (6630), 253-260 DOI: 10.1038/387253a0

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article