October 15, 2015

Listen & Demonstrate Openness

Engagement Object: Showing that you are listening



Good: Science communicators should show willingness to listen.

Better: Science communicators should develop mechanisms for collecting feedback.

Best: Science communicators should show how what they hear from others is shaping how they think and behave.

Always: Science communicators should acknowledge peoples’ need to be heard.

Description of the objective: People like being listened to. Our systems of government and justice are built around the idea of being able to make arguments to decision-makers and expecting them listen. Contemporary debates in political philosophy increasingly emphasize the important of dialogue and meaningful deliberation on a broad range of issues, including those involving science (Einsiedel, 2008). Feeling listened to, in this regard, should thus be central objective of two way public engagement about science.

Why is the feeling of being listened to and treated fairly important? First, insights from social exchange theory explain that people care about fairness because it relates to one’s self-interest. People view a process as being fair when they believe they can make a difference in the final decision, thereby realizing self-interest (Lind & Tyler, 1988). Another argument is that having decision-makers listen to us make us feel like a valued member of a group (Blader & Tyler, 2009).

A related argument suggests that, while people may not know what the correct decision may be for complicated issues, they can still make judgments about whether it seems like the decision has been arrived at using a process that accounts for others’ perspective. In other words, they use their perceptions of constitutes a ‘fair process’ as a heuristic for determining the quality of a decision and whether a decision-maker can be trusted (Lind, 2001).

While much of this work has occurred outside of a science communication context, additional work has demonstrated that perceptions of fair process—including perceptions about whether scientists listen to others—matters in the context of scientific topics (e.g., McComas, Besley, & Steinhardt, 2014).


What this objective affects

Showing that you are actively listening to the public is considered beneficial for the following two reasons. Extant research findings strongly suggest that individuals are more likely to regard a decision as being legitimate if they view the decision-making process leading to that decision as having been fair (Tyler, Boeckmann, Smith, & Huo, 1997). A secondary line of research suggests that listening to the views from the public improves the quality of decisions (Fischer 2003). One of the reports by NRC clearly documented that public participation brought “better results, in terms of criteria of quality” (NRC 2008: 76).

Example evidence demonstrating the value of listening

Several studies have highlighted how the ‘fair process effect’ works in science communication contexts. Some examples:

Arvai (2003) demonstrated that telling people that risk policies about space exploration that had originated through a participatory decision-making process were more willing to accept the decision process and the outcome.    

Besley (2010) showed that people are more likely to accept a decision as legitimate when they feel public hearings are managed in ways that ensure public input, even in cases where they might not support the decision.

McComas et al. (2014) showed that people who saw a process as fair were also more likely to see associated decisions as legitimate in the context of genetically modified food and controlling for other factors.

Key online resources

National Research Council’s report “Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making (2008)”: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12434/public-participation-in-environmental-assessment-and-decision-making (Note: ID and login required to retrieve the free report in PDF.)


Arvai, J. L. (2003). Using risk communication to disclose the outcome of a participatory decision-making process: Effects on the perceived acceptability of risk-policy decision. Risk Analysis, 23(2), 281-289. doi:10.1111/1539-6924.00308

Besley, J. C. (2010). Public engagement and the impact of fairness perceptions on decision favorability and acceptance. Science Communication, 32(2), 256-280. doi:10.1177/1075547009358624

Blader, S. L., & Tyler, T. R. (2009). Testing and extending the group engagement model: Linkages between social identity, procedural justice, economic outcomes, and extrarole behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(2), 445-464. doi:10.1037/a0013935

Einsiedel, E. F. (2008). Public participation and dialogue. In M. Bucchi & B. Trench (Eds.), Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (pp. 173-184). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lind, E. A. (2001). Fairness heuristic theory: Justice judgments as pivotal cognitions in organizational relations. Advances in organizational justice, 56, 88.

Lind, E. A., & Tyler, T. R. (1988). The Social Psychology of Procedural Justice. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

McComas, K. A., Besley, J. C., & Steinhardt, J. (2014). Factors influencing U.S. consumer support for genetic modification to prevent crop disease. Appetite, 78(1). doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.02.006

Tyler, T. R., Boeckmann, R. J., Smith, H. J., & Huo, Y. J. (1997). Social Justice in a Diverse Society. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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