BA (Hons), PhD (UQ), FASSA

Prof. Hornsey is interested in the psychology of persuasion, particularly in heated, polarizing contexts. He focuses on the psychology of how feelings of mistrust and threat can lead people to reject messages. These insights are then translated into concrete and do-able strategies for overcoming defensiveness. Specific examples include ARC-funded research on (1) why people embrace or resist scientific messages about climate change, vaccination, evolution, and so forth, (2) how people respond to gestures of reconciliation from transgressor groups, and (3) what drives defensiveness in the face of group criticism and recommendations for change.

  • Rejection of science: There is a worryingly large chasm between scientific consensus and popular opinion on issues such as climate change, vaccination, and evolution. It is easy to assume that resistance to an evidence-based message is a result of ignorance or failure to grasp evidence (the “deficit model” of science communication). But increasingly, theorists understand there are limits to this approach, and that if people are motivated to reject science, then repeating evidence will have little impact. In an effort to create a transtheoretical language for describing these underlying motivations, Prof. Hornsey introduced the notion of “attitude roots”: the underlying fears, ideologies, worldviews, and identity needs that sustain and motivate specific “surface” attitudes like climate skepticism and creationism. He then used these insights to develop a “jiu jitsu” model of persuasion that places emphasis on creating change by aligning with (rather than competing with) these attitude roots.
  • Gestures of reconciliation: Prof. Hornsey has examined how people respond to intergroup apologies. It is widely assumed that intergroup apologies are an important pre-requisite for forgiveness, but Prof. Hornsey was the first to test this empirically (with surprising results). The research identifies hidden pitfalls of intergroup apologies for victims, insights that speak to broader themes of trust and reconciliation between groups. He has since developed a trust-based model that explicates why intergroup apologies have little impact on forgiveness, and offers recommendations for how reconciliation gestures can best be framed.
  • Criticisms and recommendations for change: Prof. Hornsey is the world leader on the question of what drives defensiveness after group criticism and recommendations for change. Most notably, he demonstrated that levels of defensiveness appear to be independent of the expertise of the critic or objective qualities of the argument. Until Prof. Hornsey’s work, there was no theoretical or empirical heritage to account for this apparently “irrational” response, and no blueprint for reducing it. His model outlined for the first time the motivational and strategic considerations that lead people to reject versus embrace a constructive criticism, and offers concrete strategies for promoting open and non-defensive communication.

Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

1. Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., & Fielding, K. S. (2018). Relationships among conspiratorial beliefs, conservatism and climate scepticism across nations. Nature Climate Change, 8, 614-620.

2. Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., & Fielding, K. S. (2018). The psychological roots of anti-vaccination attitudes: A 24-nation investigation. Health Psychology, 37, 307-315.

3. Hornsey, M. J., & Fielding, K. S. (2017). Attitude roots and jiu jitsu persuasion: Understanding and overcoming the motivated rejection of science. American Psychologist, 72, 459-473.

4. Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., Bain, P. G., & Fielding, K. S. (2016). Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change. Nature Climate Change, 6, 622-626.

5. Bain, P.G., Hornsey, M. J., Bongiorno, R., & Jeffries, C. (2012). Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers. Nature Climate Change, 2, 600-603.