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Professor Linda Steg: ‘Public opinion on nuclear power not as unwavering as we thought’

22 June 2011

It is worthwhile for both advocates and opponents of nuclear power to vent their arguments as much as possible, says Linda Steg, Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Groningen. Ever since the problems at the Fukushima 1 Japanese nuclear power plant many people have been unsure whether they are for or against nuclear energy, as a study by Steg’s PhD student Goda Perlaviciute reveals. Arguments could win over these doubters to one of the two camps.

Last March an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami proved too much for Japan’s Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant. While the rest of the world watched with bated breath as the Japanese tried to get the problems with the reactor under control, Perlaviciute was busy taking questionnaires. Steg and her fellow researchers had already done some research into advocates and opponents of nuclear power, and two weeks after the Japanese disaster they were keen to find out what effect all the talk of danger from radiation and precarious rescue operations was having on Dutch public opinion on nuclear energy.

Doubts set in

‘Before the events almost 60 percent of the Dutch public were in favour of nuclear power’, says Perlaviciute, based on detailed questionnaires that she put to a group representative of the population. About 25 percent of respondents were against it and 15 percent had doubts. Perlaviciute notes, ‘At that time the pattern was largely consistent with the current idea that the public was divided into two clear camps, steadfastly in favour of nuclear energy or steadfastly against it.’

A fortnight after the Japanese disaster the situation had suddenly changed: when the same questionnaires were retaken one third of respondents were against nuclear power, one third in favour and one third doubtful. ‘A striking finding from the study’, says Steg, ‘was that a respondent’s reaction to the reports from Japan depended very much on that person’s values.’

Egocentric and environmental values

As environmental psychologists, Steg and Perlaviciute investigate the interplay between humans and their surroundings. In this case the question was what effect a disaster in Japan had on acceptance of nuclear power in the Netherlands. By including particular questions in their questionnaires they were able to divide the respondents into groups. What they found was that people with pronounced egocentric values (i.e. those who attach great importance to their personal interests and their wallets) tend to be more in favour of nuclear energy, whereas those with pronounced environmental values are often against it.

A surprising finding was that the different groups reacted differently to the Japanese nuclear disaster. Steg explains: ‘The people with egocentric values assigned higher probability to the positive effects of nuclear power – for example the availability of cheap energy; they waved aside the dangers. The people who attached great importance to the environment behaved similarly, but the other way round: they assigned higher probability to the risks of nuclear power.’

Influence

So what happens if people have both egocentric and environmental values? ‘That group used to be in favour of nuclear energy, as attention has been focused on the benefits in recent years’, Steg elucidates. ‘And as disasters – fortunately – are so few and far between, counter-arguments are not put forward so often. After Fukushima people with both egocentric and environmental values became more aware that nuclear power has risks as well as benefits. And the more arguments going in a particular direction these doubters hear, the more their opinions will go in that direction.’

Curriculum vitae

Linda Steg (Ravenswoud, 1965) studied Adult Education at the University of Groningen. She was awarded a PhD by the University in 1996 for her thesis on the topic of ‘Changing behaviour to reduce car use’. From 1995 she was employed as a researcher at the University’s Department of Social Psychology and the Netherlands Institute for Social Research in The Hague. In 2011 she was appointed Professor of Environmental Psychology at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences.

Goda Perlaviciute (Lithuania, 1986) studied Psychology at the University of Groningen. She has been working as a PhD student in the Environmental Psychology Group for two years. In another two years’ time she hopes to gain her PhD with her study of the influence of environmental factors on people’s motivations and behaviour.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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