Emotional response to climate change influences whether we seek or avoid further information

May 15, 2013

Sixty-two percent of Americans now say they believe that global warming is happening, but 46 percent say they are "very sure" or "extremely sure" that it is not. Only 49 percent know why it is occurring, and about as many say they're not worried about it, according to the April report of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Because information about climate change is ubiquitous in the media, researchers at the University at Buffalo and the University of Texas, Austin, looked at why many Americans know so little about its causes and why many are not interested in finding out more.

The study, "What, Me Worry? The Role of Affect in Information Seeking and Avoidance" was conducted by Z. Janet Yang, PhD, assistant professor of communication at UB, and Lee Ann Kahlor, PhD, associate professor of public relations and advertising at UT Austin. It was published in the April 2013 issue of the journal Science Communication and is available at http://scx.sagepub.com/content/35/2/189.

Yang says, "Our key variables of interest were 'information seeking' and 'information avoidance.'

"We found that emotions have different impacts on both behaviors and that those with whom we socialize also are an important influence on our ."

In particular, according to Yang, the study found:

  • Those who had toward climate change – feelings marked by states of fear, depression, anxiety, etc., – actively sought more information about climate change. They also saw climate change as having serious risks, and considered their current knowledge about it insufficient.
  • Those driven by a positive affect toward climate change – an marked by hopefulness, excitement, happiness, etc. – actively avoided exposure to additional information on the issue. They also said climate change presented little risk to nature and humans, and they viewed their knowledge about climate change as sufficient.
  • Our social environment has the potential to strongly influence whether we seek or avoid climate change information. This, the researchers say, may be because we are most often around people who agree with us about important issues, reinforce our perception of risk and support or discourage further action.

The study involved an online survey of 736 undergraduates from two large U.S. universities (61.3 percent female, 62.5 percent white, median family income, $90,000).

The research survey was developed and executed using Qualtrics software and was designed to ascertain:

  • The subjects' general affect in relation to climate change – positive (excited, hopeful, happy) or negative (concerned, worried, anxious)
  • How much information about climate change they thought they had and how much more they thought they needed
  • How severe they found the threat of climate change to be to themselves and to nature, and its impact around the world
  • How valuable they thought seeking information on the subject would be to them
  • How much they valued others' opinions toward seeking information about climate change
  • The confidence each had in his or her ability to find information about climate change

"Earlier research in social psychology has found that emotion, both positive and negative, is motivational and involves action tendency and action readiness," Yang explains.

"Those with a negative affect may seek out information, even if it includes negative predictions, in order to reduce their uncertainty and perhaps reassert control over the situation," says Yang.

"On the other hand, those with a positive affect who say they avoid seeking information may do so because they want to maintain their uncertainty – and their emotional equilibrium – from negative information that might upset them as well as contradict the attitudes of their social support group."

The researchers say the study results present several ways to improve the communication of risk information related to climate change. They say the data on subjects' reported information sufficiency suggests that risk communication about climate change might benefit from these approaches:

  • Arousing a sense of curiosity and debunking false beliefs about ecological risks so people are not complacent about what they already know
  • Highlighting potential negative consequences and fostering a positive attitude toward learning about climate change
  • Monitoring the audience's and its perceived ability for finding and understanding information about climate change
  • Promoting optimism that human action, such as reducing greenhouse gas, could actually combat the consequences of .

Yang conducts research centered on the communication of risk information related to science, health and environmental issues, and on social cognitive variables that influence information seeking and processing, health decision making and public perception of environmental and health risks.

Kahlor's research is centered on health and environmental risk communication with an emphasis on mass communication of complex science and information seeking.

Explore further: College education not always about what you have

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VendicarE
3 / 5 (5) May 15, 2013
Showing once again that Conservative Ignorance is bliss.

Like virtually all scientists, I see the issue of climate change as a moral one. Specifically that it is immoral to exhaust the planet of resources, both material, and biological, and leave the planet less fit for plants, animals, and lastly for people.

People are last on the list of course, because people are the most capable of adaptation in the short term.

Developing a sustainable lifestyle for the worlds population is paramount.
Neinsense99
2 / 5 (4) May 17, 2013
Hark! Methinks I hear the pitter-patter of marching trolls bearing sharpened talking points and rhetorical weapons beneath a banner depicting a river in Egypt. Lo, the horde cometh!
Maggnus
5 / 5 (2) May 17, 2013
It is of interest to me that the main finding of the study is that education enlightening both the cause of the warming and the possible effects that might be forecasted as a result of the warming help to alleviate the anxiety some feel, and give assurance to those that feel disconnected to the events that there is something they can do, both of which result in a higher level of participation in the findings of solutions by the people so educated.

So there is light at the end of the tunnel of ignorance for all except those vocal few who are so convinced of some conspiracy that nothing will change their view. I see this as a good sign, and as providing the means by which to try and show people the truth of what the science is showing us.
Czcibor
4 / 5 (1) May 21, 2013
What if someone is not good at following recent fads and still panics about let's say running out of natural resources or damage by pesticides?

I'm personally quite curious about possibility of making different sociological study:
- selection of the threats most popular in media; (area covered in newspapers, time on TV)
- analyses of cost effectiveness of policies used against such problem.

Because in area of cost effectiveness my guess is that dealing with GW is left wing equivalent of war with terror or war on drugs. (I'm neither denying existence of GW, of Al-Quaida nor of heroine)
antigoracle
1 / 5 (3) Jun 11, 2013
Like virtually all scientists, I see the issue of climate change as a moral one. Specifically that it is immoral to exhaust the planet of resources, both material, and biological, and leave the planet less fit for plants, animals, and lastly for people.

Perhaps you would share with us, your life of frugality in that cave, so that we may all join in your enviable moral pursuit.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jun 11, 2013
"Universities drive this lesson home by encouraging students to regard those who make arguments whose conclusions they dislike as insensitive to their feelings; by enacting hate speech codes; and by depriving the accused of due process in cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Read more: http://www.realcl...VuSIF8dI
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The comment above was about the recent Obama regime attacks on liberty, but it applies quite well with this piece.
For AGWites telling the story for an emotional response to 'motivate action' is more important than the uncertainty of the data behind their story.
And we also see how anyone who questions AGWism is personally attacked.