Research & Insights

When it Comes to Climate Change Seeing is Believing and Feeling.

New research suggests that climate skeptics and deniers may struggle to picture climate change. When asked to describe images of what climate change looks like, they come up with nothing.

However, those who can visualize climate change are often more emotionally impacted by images than researchers previously believed, according to social psychologist Zoe Leviston and her colleagues.

In their study, participants were asked the question, “What are the first 3 images that come to mind when you think about climate change?”

Then they were asked to rank the images on a 10-point scale from “very negative” to “very positive.” They were also asked whether or not they thought climate change was real and happening and whether they thought people had anything to do with it.

In the second part of the study, four different groups of participants looked through 82 images to assess how they impact people emotionally. These images were the same ones that the participants had shared earlier.

The first group was asked to sort the images into piles based on whether they were associated with climate change or not.

Participants then chose the top 10 images they associated with climate change and described the emotion they felt when looking at the image (“angry,” “bored,” “relaxed,” etc.). Finally, participants picked their top three images and discussed them in a workshop.

As a result of the workshop discussions, the images were sorted into several different thematic categories including: natural disasters, melting glaciers and climate pollution.

Images like smokestacks and vehicle emissions  – things typically associated with the causes of climate change – elicited negative reactions, while images associated with solutions to climate change – such as wind turbines – elicited positive reactions.

The types of emotions reported differed greatly. Images of natural disasters and melting ice produced emotions like anger, where images of droughts produced emotions like depression.

The fact that so many of the images were seen as negative, combined with the fact many people couldn’t visualize climate change at all, suggests great diversity in views and responses to climate change images.

As people associate negative feelings with images of climate change, the researchers believe people will psychologically distance themselves from the issue.

“Concerted efforts to frame the impacts of climate change in personally meaningful and beneficial ways—such as focusing on impacts specific to the nation or locale, and the social benefits of collective response—may be an effective means to communicate climate change in a way that avoids disempowerment,” they suggest. “Constant coupling of climate change with the positive corollaries of action will be required over the long term.”

European Journal of Social Psychology

Zoe Leviston and Jennifer Price,  CSIRO, Perth, Australia
Brian Bishop,  Curtin University, Perth, Australia

Posted: February 15, 2016
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