Psychological Distance and Response to Human Versus Non-Human Victims of Climate Change
Despite the serious threat of climate change to sustainability, people in the United States feel little urgency to address the issue. The goal of this research project was to use psychological methods to better understand why Americans respond to climate change the way they do, and to assess strategies to spur a stronger action-oriented response. Using Construal Level Theory as a foundation, three psychological studies explored the perceived psychological distance of climate change, empathy toward victims of climate change, and people’s willingness to take action. Past research suggests that perceptions of low psychological distance toward climate change are associated with higher concern and willingness to take action. In the current research, participants read short scenarios about climate change and how it impacts specific victims, such as geographically and socially similar people (low psychological distance) or a geographically and socially dissimilar social agent such as an animal (high psychological distance). Using both self-report surveys and implicit methods, our studies examined the relationship between psychological distance and response to climate change. Consistent with other research, we found that psychologically closer framings of climate change do not always effectively ameliorate psychological distance, nor result in greater intention to act. Our results further suggest that people may engage in psychological distancing when faced with climate change suffering. These findings provide important insights for effective communication about challenging sustainability issues.
KeywordsPsychological distance Climate change Empathy Sustainability communication Framing
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