Fear Appeals and Localising Climate Change: Neither is a Panacea to Motivate Action on Climate Change A Social Psychological Perspective
Date: 19 November 2013
University of Exeter
PhD in Psychology
This thesis was interested in exploring the questions of why individuals typically do not respond strongly to climate change, and how individual motivations to do so might be strengthened. More specifically, this thesis explored two widely cited barriers to climate change action and the solutions commonly suggested to overcome them. ...
This thesis was interested in exploring the questions of why individuals typically do not respond strongly to climate change, and how individual motivations to do so might be strengthened. More specifically, this thesis explored two widely cited barriers to climate change action and the solutions commonly suggested to overcome them. The first barrier is the lack of personal experience with climate change, which is believed to inhibit relevant emotional processes. The second, not unrelated, barrier is that people typically perceive climate change as a distant threat, one that is not relevant to them personally, where they live, and in the present time. To test these explanations, two public surveys of residents of both the UK (n = 616) and Switzerland (n = 316) explored the relationships among negative emotions, perceptions of geographically proximal and distant climate change risks, and variables that capture people’s willingness to address climate change. The findings supported the idea that stronger negative emotions were positively related to more readiness to act against climate change. The relationship between spatially close versus distant risk perceptions and measures of different forms of action was, however, more complex. Specifically, the findings revealed a strong association between global risk perceptions and policy support and a strong association between local risk perceptions and personal intentions. One explanation for these (unexpected) associations is that they are due to spontaneous matches with regard to psychological distance: Local risk perceptions are psychologically proximal on the spatial dimension and personal intentions can be regarded as proximal on the social dimension. Likewise, the spatially remote global risk perceptions can be matched to support for policies, which can be regarded as distant on the social dimension. Studies 3 and 4 tried to experimentally untangle the complex relationships between psychological distance and people’s perceptions and actions that were 2 observed in the survey research. Specifically, in both studies participants were manipulated to adopt either a spatially proximal or distant perspective on climate change. Study 3 (n = 80) measured participants emotional responses to climate change and looked at how these predicted different attitudinal and behavioural responses under a proximal or distant framework, whereas Study 4 (n = 330) more directly explored the possible effects of activating negative emotions (i.e., fear) in combination with different distance frames as part of attempts to promote action on climate change. The findings of Studies 3 and 4 suggest that decreasing the psychological distance of climate change and inducing fear can both be potentially useful strategies to promote action on climate change. However, the operation of both these strategies is more complex than is often assumed and these complexities have implications for the effectiveness of each strategy. For one thing, both attempts to reduce distance and increase fear can initiate multiple psychological processes that simultaneously increase and decrease the likelihood of acting on climate change. Because these processes work in opposition, reduced distance and increased fear can have positive effects, negative effects, or no effect at all. Together, the findings across studies highlight that psychological distance is neither an insurmountable obstacle to action against climate change – it depends on what kind of action is being considered (Studies 1 & 2) – and nor is decreasing psychological distance a panacea to motivate action – this can trigger the same kind of defensiveness that have been observed in response to other strategies, such as the use of emotion (Studies 3 & 4). In the general discussion, the theoretical implications of these insights for different theoretical models of distance, emotion, and action are considered, as are the implications for the practice of promoting public engagement with and action on climate change.
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