Attention, activist groups: Open-minded people don't change their view when you control what they learn and they only get one side of the issue, according to a new paper, so framing can only take you so far.

The results of a new paper in the Journal of Communication suggest that climate change deniers may be less effective in swaying public opinion than many scientists and advocates fear, and may even hurt their own cause among those who are most open-minded, according to the authors. 

Closed-minded people usually aren't changing their minds regardless of the messages they receive, or what their original views are. To paraphrase U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, 47% of people on each side are deciding issues based on the party in favor or against.  Yet open-minded people were persuaded on climate change issues when they got both sides of the topic - data wins, and framing isn't making much of a difference in that.

The paper also found no evidence that open-minded people become less supportive of government intervention, no matter if they heard both sides of the argument or only one.

The paper was created from results obtained by a nationally representative sample of people who participated in an online survey. First, participants filled out a questionnaire asking a variety of questions and seeing where they stood on government intervention in climate change.
Four weeks later, the participants watched either one or two short videos that took sides on whether the government should take action to reduce the effects of climate change. Some saw only a video for or against government action, while others saw both pro and con videos.

"In the real world, people are getting multiple competing messages on all kinds of important issues. We wanted to have an experiment where we could compare people who are exposed to one side of an argument to those who saw two sides in our videos,"  said Erik Nisbet, co-author of the paper, expert on framing policy topics and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

But it is not just the messages themselves that determine people's attitudes. They also measured a key individual difference in people – how open- or closed-minded they are when grappling with an issue like climate change.

The researchers assessed open-mindedness by asking participants how much they agreed with statements like "Even after I have made up my mind about something, I am always eager to consider a different opinion." After viewing either one or two videos, the participants were asked again – as they were four weeks earlier – about their views on government intervention on climate change.

Nisbet said it wasn't surprising that there wasn't much change in most people's views on the issue. But there was that interesting interaction in which open-minded people became more supportive of government intervention – if they saw videos both for and against intervention.

"I think a lot of people would expect seeing both the pro and con videos would leave viewers unchanged in their views, because the messages would cancel each other out," Nisbet said. "But that wasn't true for open-minded people. Seeing both videos seemed to stimulate them to think more about both sides of the issue, and lead them to the side they thought had the better argument."

What about the primacy effect and selective exposure, all factors in open-mindedness? Unclear, but the surveyors asked participants how they viewed the costs versus the benefits of government action on climate change, both before and after they watched the video or videos. The results showed that open-minded people are willing to consider the benefits of changing the status quo, while closed-minded people focus on the dangers of changing and were more likely to support maintaining the status quo.

This suggests that closed-minded people may be influenced by messages that focus on how government approaches to climate change may preserve the status quo by, for instance, protecting our lifestyle or nation's economic status.

"That approach still needs to be tested, but there is promise there," Nisbet said.

Citation: Erik C. Nisbet, P. S. Hart, Teresa Myers and Morgan Ellithorpe, 'Attitude Change in Competitive Framing Environments? Open-/Closed-Mindedness, Framing Effects, and Climate Change', Journal of Communication, 11 JUN 2013, DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12040