A Belgian public survey on greener energy consumption has found that positive messages about environmental issues may be more effective than negative messages in encouraging behavioural change for large sections of the public.
The researchers suggest this can help policy planners devise targeted communications strategies.
Different sectors of the public are sensitive to the way in which information is presented to them. The researchers explored public responses to communications about energy and environmental problems which suggest that individuals can personally do something about these issues.
For example, they could use less energy or more renewable energy sources, such as biofuels.
They conducted an internet survey of 260 respondents living in Belgium which contained questions about what respondents knew and felt about the environment, with an emphasis on energy use and biofuels.
In addition, the survey contained a message about energy and environmental issues and urged people to do something to address these problems.
Participants in the survey received one of two versions of the message. Both had similar contents, but one of the messages was negatively framed and the other message was positively framed.
The negative message stressed the seriousness of environmental and energy problems and the damaging consequences, such as greater pollution, higher energy prices and threatened energy security.
In contrast, the positively framed message emphasised what could be gained by changing behaviour, such as reduced environmental pollution and greater energy security. Participants were asked how they thought the message they read would influence their behaviour, as well as other people's behaviour.
The study found that many respondents had only a limited understanding of alternative energy sources, such as biofuels, and wanted more information. These respondents tended to be younger than 35 years old or older than 55 years, were less well educated and the majority were women.
The positive message raised their level of concern and the desire to change behaviour and could therefore be more effective than a negatively framed message. For example, having read the positive message, women reported that they were more likely to be interested in choosing energy-efficient cars or using more biofuels in place of fossil fuels.
However, for respondents between the ages of 35 and 55, concern about environmental and energy issues was not increased by either type of message and they did not become more inclined to change their behaviour. Other communication strategies may therefore need to be developed for this age group.
In addition, the study found that whichever message the participants received, concern about environmental problems was greater than their belief that they could do something about it.
Nevertheless, the study concluded that positive messages containing opportunities and solutions are, in general, more effective in encouraging behavioural changes which reduce the environmental impact of energy use.
The researchers add that public trust in the information source is also important when designing effective communication strategies.