Introducing the 2015 Prize Winners

At our frank gathering, we awarded one $10,000 and three $1,500 prizes for scholarly research that helps inform and advance practice in public interest communications. Below are our winners for 2015:

$10,000 Prize Winner: Sara N. Bleich, PhD

Reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by providing caloric information: How black adolescents alter their purchases and whether the effects persist

Sara N Bleich, PhD, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Additional Authors: Colleen Barry, Tiffany Gary-Webb, Bradley Herring

We examined the ways in which adolescents altered the type and size of their purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and whether the effects persisted after the calorie information was removed. Methods. We used a case-crossover design with six stores located in low-income Black neighborhoods in Baltimore, Maryland, from 2012 to 2013. The intervention used one of four randomly posted signs with calorie information: absolute calories, number of teaspoons of sugar, and number of minutes of running or miles of walking necessary to burn off a 20-ounce beverage. We collected data for 4516 purchases by Black adolescents.Results. Easily understandable calorie information — particularly in the form of miles of walking — makes adolescents more likely to buy a beverage with fewer calories, a healthier beverage and a smaller size beverage. The number of sugary drink calories purchased went from 203 calories before the miles of walking sign to 179 after. The likelihood of buying an SSB decreased from 98 percent before to 89 percent after. The size of purchases fell from 54 percent buying more than 16 oz. to 37 percent. Regardless of which sign was posted, the percentage of adolescents who chose to buy no beverage at all increased from 27 percent to 33 percent over the study period. These healthier choices persisted six weeks after the signs came down. Practice Implications. Providing easily understandable caloric information may help consumers make healthier decisions in real-world settings.

$1,500 Prize Winner: David Sleeth-Keppler

It’s a Matter of Trust: American Judgments of the Credibility of Informal Communicators on Solutions to Climate Change

Prof. David Sleeth-Keppler, Humboldt State University
Additional Authors: Robert Perkowitz, Meighen Speiser

Climate advocacy from scientists and other formal communicators (e.g., politicians) typically fails to reach citizens who distrust these groups, largely due to value differences. Similarly, many segments of American society believe climate change is a matter of personal belief, rather than a topic of scientific inquiry. To better reach diverse audiences on the subject of solutions to climate change, we sought to expand the list of potential climate communicators in the climate discourse. Specifically, the present study represents a systematic and generalizable investigation of the credibility of informal communicators (e.g., health professionals, neighbors, co-workers, emergency first-responders, religious leaders, farmers) on solutions to climate change in US society. Our conceptual analysis relies on opinion leader dynamics and Kruglanski et al.’s (2005) epistemic authority framework, to elucidate the psychological relevance of informal communicators on climate solutions. The study, based on a nationally-representative sample of US adults (N = 1,737), includes social and demographic variables to predict trust in various types of informal communicators, and measures of the perceived effectiveness of climate solutions (e.g., moving away from coal and oil towards alternative energy). Trust in formal communicators (scientists and President Obama) consistently predicts trust in informal communicators on solutions to climate change, suggesting that trust in formal climate sources is not incompatible with trust in informal sources. However, trust in informal communicators does not predict trust in formal communicators. Social and demographic groups that do not primarily rely on formal communicators on solutions to climate change instead rely more on various informal communicators. For example, religiosity and political conservatism positively predict trust in religious leaders, congregants, neighbors, co-workers, bosses and health professionals on solutions to climate change. Discussion focuses on implications for future research, and recommendations for policy actors, environmental communicators, and social marketers interested in broadening the scope of climate outreach.

$1,500 Prize: Brendan Nyhan

Blank slates or closed minds? The role of information deficits and identity threat in the prevalence of misperceptions

Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College
Additional Authors: Jason Reifler, University of Exeter

Numerous surveys show that the American public holds many incorrect or factually unsupported beliefs about politics, health, and science. From myths about “death panels” to skewed beliefs about the state of the economy, misperceptions can distort public debate, undermine trust in political leaders, and warp the process by which people form and update policy preferences. Given these perverse democratic consequences, it is essential that public interest communication efforts are based on the best available science about the sources of misinformation and how to most effectively counter it. Our article considers two explanations for why misperceptions are so prevalent. One possibility is that much of the public has not have been exposed to clear factual information. If so, then presenting correct information in a compelling format should reduce these false or unsupported beliefs. Alternatively, however, people may have rejected accurate information because it threatened their worldview or self-concept – a mechanism that can be revealed by affirming individuals’ self-worth, which might buttress them psychologically and make them more willing to acknowledge uncomfortable facts they would otherwise deny. We test both approaches in three experiments concerning issues where some citizens may be unwilling to acknowledge factual information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs: insurgent attacks in Iraq after the US troop surge, job growth in the US from January 2010 to January 2011, and global temperature change over the past thirty years. We find support for both explanations across the three studies. Our results indicate that providing accurate information in graphical form reduces misperceptions. However, self-affirmation also substantially decreases misperceptions among those most likely to hold them even if no other information is provided. Misperceptions are thus not simply the result of a lack of information – our results suggest that many people could offer correct answers if they were less psychologically threatening.