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Lateral attitude change on environmental issues: implications for the climate change debate


As it becomes increasingly urgent to address climate change, scholars have begun to explore how attitudes toward climate change are shaped, including the influence of messages people hear in the context of the ongoing climate change debate. What has not yet been addressed, however, is how these arguments might be affecting not only climate change attitudes (direct attitude change), but other environmental attitudes as well (lateral attitude change). To explore this possibility, two experimental studies were conducted in which participants read a message either supporting or opposing climate change action. Attitudes toward climate change, the closely related issues of recycling and alternative energy, and the distantly related issues of mandatory vaccination and gun control were assessed before and after message exposure. Results indicated that lateral attitude change (specifically, generalization) occurred for recycling and alternative energy, but not vaccination or gun control. Several possible moderators of these effects were explored, but were found to have only a limited impact. General implications for public opinion are discussed.

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  1. Subjects were undergraduates at a large Midwestern university. The sample was predominantly female (62.2%), White (77.3%), economically (M = 4.49, SD = 1.40) and socially liberal (M = 5.22, SD = 1.30), and split between Republicans (37.8%), Democrats (31.1%), and Independents (28.9%).

  2. Confirmatory factor analysis (Hunter and Gerbing 1982) was conducted to examine fit of the attitude data to the proposed 11-factor structure. The initial test of the model indicated unsatisfactory fit, but acceptable fit (given the small sample size, N = 45) was obtained by removing several items (RMSE = .09). Remaining items were averaged into a composite for each attitude.

  3. Before the study, both arguments were assessed by an expert in social influence, revised until judged to be strong, then pilot tested. On average, participants (N = 179) rated both arguments as high in quality (M = 4.83, SD = 1.23) and legitimacy (M = 4.64, SD = 0.73).

  4. Reported demographics pertain to this final group (N = 710). Attrition analyses revealed that age was the only variable significantly associated with attrition (r = .18). Given the number of tests performed and modest size of the correlation, however, this may simply be a chance finding.

  5. CFAs were used to test the fit of the attitude data to a three-factor model. At the pretest, the initial test of the model indicated good fit (CFI = .97, RMSE = .05), but there were numerous residuals larger than would be expected by chance. Fit was improved by removing one recycling and two mandatory vaccination items (CFI = .99, RMSE = .02). This same factor structure exhibited excellent fit at both the post-test (CFI = .99, RMSE = .03) and delayed post-test (CFI = .99, RMSE = .03).

  6. However, this effect may have resulted from a general trend for anti-action participants to develop more favorable attitudes over time. Even among those receiving an anti-action messsage, there was a tendency to develop more positive attitudes toward climate change between the pretest and delayed post-test, t (37) = 3.69, p < .001, r = .52.

  7. A reverse mediation model in which recycling attitudes mediated the effect of the message on climate change attitudes was also checked. It exhibited poor fit to the data, χ2 (3, n = 563) = 11.70, p < .001, RMSE = .11.

  8. Attrition analyses revealed that only age was a significant predictor of attrition (r = .21). Given that age was not expected to be relevant to study outcomes and the large number of tests performed, however, this finding was not particularly concerning.

  9. CFAs were conducted to test fit of the data to the proposed factor structures for each measure. Initially, good fit was observed for all measures, but a few items across scales were associated with larger errors than would be expected to occur due to chance. Removing these problematic items produced excellent fit to the models of the pretest (CFI = .98, RMSE = .02) and post-test (CFI = .98, RMSE = .03) attitudes scales, pre-test ideology and preference for consistency scales (CFI = .98, RMSE = .03), and post-test author and message scales (CFI = .98, RMSE = .05). Remaining items were averaged within each factor to produce a composite score.

  10. Reverse mediation models in which recycling or alternative energy attitudes mediated the effect of the message on climate change attitudes were also checked. For both, the message effect was nonexistent (β ≤ .01), indicating poor fit to the data. Global fit of the alternative energy model was also poor, χ2 (3, n = 283) = 8.55, p = .036, RMSE = .07; and global fit of the recycling model was substantially worse than for the generalization model, χ2 (3, n = 283) = 2.94, p = .401, RMSE = .07.


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Correspondence to Shannon M. Cruz.

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Cruz, S.M. Lateral attitude change on environmental issues: implications for the climate change debate. Climatic Change 156, 151–169 (2019).

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