How psychological distance and personal experiences influence perceptions of and response to climate change

Many people think of climate change as an issue that is predominantly distant and abstract. This blog post elaborates on these perceptions and talks about if and how they may change because of communications or personal experiences of climate-related weather events.

Climate change as a psychologically distant issue

Surveys show that many people think of climate change as a problem that mainly affects distant places, strangers, and future generations. By contrast, the risks to one’s immediate surroundings, friends, family members, and oneself is typically perceived as much lower. Although most of these surveys were conducted in North America and Europe, there is also some research available from Africa and South America that draws a similar picture.

It is tempting to use this perceived psychological distance as an explanation for why people do not act more on climate change. Put bluntly, in face of more immediate day-to-day concerns such as financial difficulties, problems at work, or health issues, climate change may simply not be high enough on people’s priority list to make them act. Taking this line of reasoning one step further, it could be argued that if the psychological distance of climate change became smaller, then perhaps people might be more concerned about this issue and more willing to act.  

In the remainder of this post, I would like to elaborate on two ways in which the psychological distance of climate change can be reduced and on how this, in turn, could affect people’s perceptions and decisions. The first approach is to highlight the already occurring or expected impacts of climate change on things, places, and people that are psychologically close to the audience. Second, people may personally experience weather phenomena that can plausibly be linked to the impacts of climate change. However, to avoid building up unduly optimistic expectations about the effectiveness of these ways to bring climate change closer, let me tell you this: although there lies potential in both approaches, their effects are complex and strongly depend on additional personal and societal processes.

Communicating climate change as a psychologically close problem

When speaking or writing about climate change, there are several ways by which communicators can reduce the psychological distance at which people perceive this issue. For example, an influential theory in this area argues that things can be distant because they (1) are geographically far away, (2) because they happened in the past or will happen in the future, (3) because they affect strangers or people who are very different from oneself, or (4) because they are uncertain. These four dimensions of psychological distance can be used as a starting point to craft messages that may help to overcome the perceived distance. To illustrate, journalists could write about how climate change is already affecting local places and people, thereby bringing the issue closer on all four distance dimensions.

Although the idea to simply centre climate change messages around psychologically close aspects sounds intuitively plausible and promising, there is one very important caveat to this approach: attempts to implement it do not convincingly show that this approach works. For example, experiments that randomly show one group of people information about local climate change and another group information about impacts in distant places indicate that the geographically close version often does not lead to a higher motivation to reduce climate change.

Currently relatively little is known about why exactly the use of a local focus in climate messages is not instilling greater willingness to act. One possibility is that a single message about psychologically close impacts cannot override existing beliefs and perceptions of climate change as a distant problem. A second possibility is that distance does only indirectly affect the outcome of decisions: The literature around psychological distance suggests that distance primarily affects what information people use to make decisions. For example, when people think about things, events, or actions that are psychologically close, they tend to consider information from their immediate situation such as their current emotions, how costly or convenient it would be to carry out a specific behaviour, or opinions from people around them. In contrast, when people think about things that are far away (e.g., in space, time, socially, or because they are very unlikely), they typically base their decisions on more stable and abstract information like their long-term goals, values, and core beliefs. More technically speaking, this literature suggests that thinking about proximal versus distant climate change should interact with other things (e.g., concrete and situation-specific vs. abstract and generalised information) to determine individual decisions and responses.

A third possible explanation for why communications that reduce the psychological distance often do not increase action on climate change is that the focus of such messages does not necessarily resonate with what the target audience cares about. Imagine news stories about the increased risks of local (as opposed to distant) sea level rise, summer heatwaves, or the loss of wildlife. Such local reports may increase personal relevance and concern among readers or television viewers who live close to the beach, who are vulnerable to heatwaves, or who care deeply about local animals and plants. Importantly though, it cannot be taken for granted that people care about things simply because they are geographically close to them.

Note that the reverse is also true: distance is not in itself a barrier to care and be concerned. Actually, theory and research suggest that some people care most about climate change and are most motivated to act because they worry about the threats to distant places and people. This also points to a likely drawback of communications that shift the focus from the distance to proximity: this approach could decrease concern among people who are worried word most because of distant impacts.

Personal experiences of climate change

People could also come to see climate change as closer without any communicative interventions. More specifically, the number of people in the world who are exposed to extreme weather events and seasonal changes related to climate change is growing. This implies that more and more people already have or will soon have first-hand, personal experiences with climate-related events and changes in their local environment. Researchers have speculated for some time that such personal experiences could change perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours by reducing the distance of climate change and rendering it more familiar and concrete. The evidence for this assumed relationship is mixed though, with some research supporting it and other work not showing the expected links between personal experiences and the willingness to respond to climate change.

These inconsistencies again beg the question of when and how experience may reduce the psychological distance at which people perceive climate change and increase their motivation to act. Although research on the role of personal experiences is still in its infancy, it provides some tentative answers. First, it is possible that the effect of personal experiences depends on the exact type of the event. For example, sudden events like tornadoes or hurricanes are remembered more accurately than longer lasting events such as droughts. Similarly, the more severe and the bigger the magnitude of an event, the more likely people are to notice and remember it. It is plausible to assume that these event characteristics may not only affect people’s memory but also their risk perceptions and behaviour. However, research does currently not provide any evidence for or against the presence of such effects.

A second insight from research in this area is that the effect of experiencing climate-related events depends on how people interpret them. Existing beliefs, attitudes, and values about climate change work like a lens through which people make sense of what they experience. More specifically, there is a growing body of research suggesting that those who already believe that climate change is real, that its consequences are worrying, and that action is urgently needed are more likely to interpret personal experiences of climate-related events as further evidence for their beliefs, while people with opposing views tend to ignore identical experiences or attribute them to different causes.

Burning questions

To summarise, in some circumstances and for some people communications that reduce the distance of climate change (e.g., by highlighting its local and present impacts instead of what could happen in the future or in distant places) can be an effective way to increase personal involvement, concern, and the willingness to act. Similarly, personal experiences of climate-related weather events can sometimes lead to the same outcomes. However, the most important message to take away from this blog post is that communications that vary the psychological distance and first-hand climate change experiences are likely (a) to trigger several psychological processes that (b) are attenuated or strengthened depending on the recipient’s existing preferences, beliefs, worldviews, and values. An important implication of this is that there is no simple recipe for how best to integrate aspects of psychological distance and personal experiences into climate change communications. A message that works great for one group of people may leave other groups of people unaffected.

One important task for future research is therefore to better understand the boundary conditions that determine the effects of personal experiences and psychological distance on risk perceptions and the willingness to act. For whom, in what situations, and for what type of decision are local and present-focused messages more motivating? And when and for whom might personal experiences give impetus to act on climate change? What types of personal experiences are most likely to instil action for different groups of people? Also, we know particularly little about when and even less about how personal experiences can change people’s beliefs and attitudes. Which characteristics of an event and what psychological and social factors increase the likelihood that such changes happen? Finally, virtual reality and computer simulations provide alternative possibilities to explore the role of psychological distance and personal experiences. Using these technologies could generate important novel insights and inform both research and practice.

By Dr Adrian Brugger, Universität Bern

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