Impact Of Affective Endings Of Climate Change Appeals
Climate change is a serious issue directly tied to the survival of wild species — and our use of animals for food; the seriousness of climate change makes effective climate advocacy a vital matter to study. Are we better to use messages that are optimistic, or pessimistic? Some studies find that pessimistic messaging may lead to outright denial if it doesn’t foster action, while others find that optimistic messaging might not even trigger any perception of risk in an audience.
This study set out to investigate how affective (optimistic, pessimistic, or fatalistic) endings of climate change appeals impact individual risk perception and individual behavior of an audience. The authors hypothesized that pessimistic calls to action would heighten emotional arousal, leading to an increase in risk perception and the belief that individual behavior matters (outcome efficacy), and that message receivers with liberal leanings, would be less impacted by climate change appeals than conservatives. Three online experiments were held to test the validity of these hypotheses.
In the first experiment, participants were presented with the optimistic or pessimistic ending transcripts adapted from a video, and asked to assess climate change risk on a scale in response to the questions “How much risk do you believe global warming poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?” (from 0 = “none at all” to 7 = “extremely high risk”) and “How emotionally intense was it for you to read this article?” (from 1 = “minimal emotional intensity” to 7 = “maximal emotional intensity”). Along with additional items outside of the focus of the study, participants’ political ideology (liberal, conservative, or moderate) was assessed.
Participants presented with the pessimistic ending reported higher risk perception and emotional arousal than those presented with the optimistic ending. A linear regression of risk perception revealed a significant positive relationship with emotional arousal. Another model was done to test the effect of political ideology, and it showed that conservatives report higher levels of concern about climate change when presented with a climate change appeal with a pessimistic ending.
In the second experiment, the first experiment was replicated using the video stimulus combined with the text and adding a more nuanced measure of ideological commitments. The original video stimuli (with a positive ending) was professionally edited in the final six seconds to become a video with a pessimistic ending. Political ideology, group worldviews (individualism or communitarianism), and grid worldviews (hierarchy or egalitarianism) were also assessed. Participants presented with the optimistic or pessimistic ending were asked to respond to the same first question as in the first experiment, and to an adaptation of the second question that read “How emotionally intense was it for you to watch this video?” The results were the same as in the first experiment: climate change appeals with a pessimistic ending trigger emotional arousal and higher risk perception. People holding individualistic or hierarchical world views reported higher levels of emotional arousal and risk perception.
In the third experiment, a “fatalistic” condition was added, suggesting that it is too late to turn things around (different from the pessimistic condition which gives the possibility of a hopeful outcome) along with outcome efficacy (defined as “I believe my actions have an influence on climate change” and measured on a 4-point scale, from 1 = “strongly disagree” to 4 = “strongly agree”) as a dependent variable. A representative sample of the U.S. population was used to increase the validity of the findings. The results show no significant difference in outcome efficacy between the three conditions. However, participants presented with the pessimistic condition reported higher emotional arousal than those in the optimistic condition, while between the pessimistic and fatalistic conditions there was no significant difference. A linear regression with outcome efficacy as the dependent variable revealed a significant positive association with emotional arousal. As in the previous experiments, groups more disengaged with climate change (moderates and conservatives) and those holding individualistic or hierarchical worldviews had a significantly greater outcome efficacy as a result of increased emotional arousal from pessimistic endings.
For animal advocates, this study affirms the role of negative affect as a tool for heightening perception of climate change risk, namely in groups disengaged with the issue. Public engagement with climate change is low in both the U.S. and Europe, so advocates should use this information to tailor their messaging about climate change to be the most effective at increasing people’s risk perception, and the belief that their own behavior matters to trigger the changes needed. While climate change is a different issue than factory farming per se, there is a great deal of overlap. Climate change advocacy has an effect on the lives of animals, and this study may offer ideas for how we can study animal advocacy messaging as well.