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How Personal Experience Affects Perception of and Decisions Related to Climate Change: A Psychological View

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  • 1 Department of Consumer Behavior, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
  • | 2 School of Psychology and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
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Abstract

The proportion of the world’s population exposed to above-average monthly temperatures has been rising consistently in recent decades and will continue to grow. This and similar trends make it more likely that people will personally experience extreme weather events and seasonal changes related to climate change. A question that follows from this is to what extent experiences may influence climate-related beliefs, attitudes, and the willingness to act. Although research is being done to examine the effects of such experiences, many of these studies have two important shortcomings. First, they propose effects of experiences but remain unclear on the psychological processes that underlie those effects. Second, if they do make assumptions about psychological processes, they do not typically corroborate them with empirical evidence. In other words, a considerable body of research in this field rests on relatively unfounded intuitions. To advance the theoretical understanding of how experiences of climate change could affect the motivation to act on climate change, we introduce a conceptual framework that organizes insights from psychology along three clusters of processes: 1) noticing and remembering, 2) mental representations, and 3) risk processing and decision-making. Within each of these steps, we identify and explicate psychological processes that could occur when people personally experience climate change, and we formulate theory-based, testable hypotheses. By making assumptions explicit and tying them to findings from basic and applied research from psychology, this paper provides a solid basis for future research and for advancing theory.

Significance Statement

A growing number of people experience environmental changes and weather events that are likely manifestations of human-made climate change (e.g., heat waves, wildfires, or floods). Research has started to examine whether experiencing events influences how ordinary people feel about climate change and possible measures to reduce its extent and to adapt to its consequences. The purpose of this review is to identify and explain in detail psychological processes that could occur when people personally experience climate change and formulate theory-based, testable hypotheses that focus on three clusters of processes (noticing and remembering, mental representations, and decision-making). This work provides a solid basis for future research and for advancing theory.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Adrian Brügger, adrian.bruegger@imu.unibe.ch

Abstract

The proportion of the world’s population exposed to above-average monthly temperatures has been rising consistently in recent decades and will continue to grow. This and similar trends make it more likely that people will personally experience extreme weather events and seasonal changes related to climate change. A question that follows from this is to what extent experiences may influence climate-related beliefs, attitudes, and the willingness to act. Although research is being done to examine the effects of such experiences, many of these studies have two important shortcomings. First, they propose effects of experiences but remain unclear on the psychological processes that underlie those effects. Second, if they do make assumptions about psychological processes, they do not typically corroborate them with empirical evidence. In other words, a considerable body of research in this field rests on relatively unfounded intuitions. To advance the theoretical understanding of how experiences of climate change could affect the motivation to act on climate change, we introduce a conceptual framework that organizes insights from psychology along three clusters of processes: 1) noticing and remembering, 2) mental representations, and 3) risk processing and decision-making. Within each of these steps, we identify and explicate psychological processes that could occur when people personally experience climate change, and we formulate theory-based, testable hypotheses. By making assumptions explicit and tying them to findings from basic and applied research from psychology, this paper provides a solid basis for future research and for advancing theory.

Significance Statement

A growing number of people experience environmental changes and weather events that are likely manifestations of human-made climate change (e.g., heat waves, wildfires, or floods). Research has started to examine whether experiencing events influences how ordinary people feel about climate change and possible measures to reduce its extent and to adapt to its consequences. The purpose of this review is to identify and explain in detail psychological processes that could occur when people personally experience climate change and formulate theory-based, testable hypotheses that focus on three clusters of processes (noticing and remembering, mental representations, and decision-making). This work provides a solid basis for future research and for advancing theory.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Adrian Brügger, adrian.bruegger@imu.unibe.ch
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