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Are You Threatening Me? Identity Threat, Resistance to Persuasion, and Boomerang Effects in Environmental Communication

Persuasive messaging isn’t what it used to be—at least when it comes to scientific facts. In our polarized political environment, scientific knowledge alone is not always enough to inspire change or action. When it comes to environmental topics in particular, imparting such information without a careful strategy is often ineffective or even results in boomerang effects—inspiring the exact opposite of the desired behavior due to the way the information is shared.

Researchers Jay Hmielowski, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Public Relations assistant professor, and Yanni Ma of Oregon State University, wanted to understand better why certain messages result in boomerang affects and the role of identity threat in that reaction.

Individuals’ social identity is shaped by their experiences, values and beliefs. Typically, people who identify with certain groups will feel more positively about members of the same group, and more negatively about those outside the group. When new information is counter to their experiences, values or beliefs, an individual can experience identity threat and may ignore or actively work against the information—all potentially leading to boomerang effects.

Similarly, individuals have an environmental identity. Those with high levels of environmental identity are pro-environment and make efforts to protect it by reducing their carbon footprint and conserve energy, while those with low levels of environmental identity would not.

The researchers conducted three studies that focused on recycling, composting, and the Keystone XL pipeline. Results showed that people who hold stronger pro-environmental perspectives experience higher levels of identity threat when faced with anti-environmental messages. Identity threat led to reactance, counter-arguing and anxiety, the latter being the clearest trigger for boomerang effects.

This research is important in helping scholars and communicators understand how identity threat may prompt boomerang effects, and how the strength of people’s identities affects their reactions and levels of resistance towards counter-attitudinal messaging.

The study was somewhat limited in its measurement: high scores for environmental identity only reflected whether an individual was pro-environment, with low scores potentially equating to indifference rather than anti-environmental stances. Further study will continue to illuminate the effects of persuasion tactics and message resistance, informing advertisers, public relations professionals, and political communications managers on how to effectively share their perspectives with the public.

The original article, “Are You Threatening Me? Identity Threat, Resistance to Persuasion, and Boomerang Effects in Environmental Communication,” appeared online in Environmental Communication on Nov. 25, 2021.

 Authors: Yanni Ma, Jay Hmielowski

 This summary was written by Jessica Berube, M.A.M.C. 2021

Posted: February 4, 2022
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