Optimistic vs. pessimistic endings in climate change appeals

Should climate change appeals have optimistic or pessimistic endings? On the one hand, pessimistic messaging, often characterized as “climate disaster porn,” may be as harmful to engagement efforts as outright denial (Mann et al., 2017) if it fosters paralysis rather than action (Freedman, 2017). On the other hand, though optimistic messaging may comfort a public suffering from chronic ‘apocalypse fatigue’ (Nordhaus and Shellenberger, 2009), it might not spark the affective engagement critical for triggering risk perception (Slovic et al., 2004).

Affect is a powerful lever that can cause us to be overly sensitive to small changes in the environment while distracting us from large shifts of much greater consequence (Slovic et al., 2004). It can prompt irrational levels of alarm regarding threats with low levels of likelihood (Rottenstreich and Hsee, 2001), and deluded levels of optimism in the face of potentially catastrophic consequences (Sharot, 2011). In the context of climate change, positive affect leads to avoidance of new information, which could potentially cause distress, whereas negative affect has the opposite effect (Yang and Kahlor, 2013). In risk management, negative affect is widely acknowledged as the “wellspring of action” (Peters and Slovic, 2000), and this has shown to be no less true for the threat of climate change (Schwartz and Loewenstein, 2017). Such evidence diverges from findings in the field of health communication, where positive affect encourages information-seeking (Schwarzer and Jerusalem, 1995; Yang et al., 2011). One plausible explanation for this inverse effect is perceived efficacy, an important predictor of engagement with climate change (Feldman and Hart, 2015; Kellstedt et al., 2008). In other words, people are less likely to take action when they feel overwhelmed or hopeless (Bandura, 2002; Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Mayer and Smith, 2019).

Negative affect has been shown to increase estimations of risk probability while positive affect reduces them (Finucane et al., 2000; Ganzach, 2000). In line with the principle of loss aversion (Tversky and Kahneman, 1992), negative affect is more likely to be associated with loss rather than gain frames. A number of studies show that sadness (Schwartz and Loewenstein, 2017), worry (Smith and Leiserowitz, 2014), fear (Feldman and Hart, 2015), anxiety (Weber, 2006), hope, and anger (Feldman and Hart, 2015) are strongly associated with climate change engagement, while others observe no association with anger or fear (Smith and Leiserowitz, 2014). Witte and Allen (2000) find that fear appeals are ineffective when perceived efficacy is low. Moreover, negative affect can be considered a form of cognitive discomfort, and as the peak end rule illustrates (Do et al., 2008), people are willing to choose situations with objectively more overall pain as long as the event ends with relatively less pain. For this reason, we focus on how valence at the end of a climate change appeal influences a receiver’s risk perception of climate change-related consequences, and their perceived outcome efficacy.

The assessment of risk is subjective and inextricably linked to judgments made on the basis of core values; people tend to subconsciously avoid and mistrust information that threatens their identity or values, or which has the potential to cause estrangement from social in-groups (Kahan, 2015). Belief in anthropogenic climate change is associated with liberal ideology (McCright et al., 2016) because the acknowledgment that human activity is influencing the climate implies a need for regulation. Beyond political beliefs, cultural cognition theory stipulates that core values shape information processing and risk assessment along two dimensions or cultural worldviews: ‘group’ and ‘grid’ (Kahan and Braman, 2006). Research suggests that group/grid cultural worldviews predict beliefs about climate change better than any other individual characteristic (Kahan et al., 2011). The ‘group’ dimension categorizes people as either ‘individualists’ or ‘communitarians’ based on their beliefs about how strongly people are bound to other members of society. The ‘grid’ dimension describes values about the degree to which an individual believes their choices are controlled and limited by their roles within society.

In this paper, we make two propositions. First, the affective ending (i.e., optimistic vs. pessimistic) of climate change appeals impacts people’s risk perception and perceived outcome efficacy, which is mediated through emotional arousal. We suggest that climate change appeals with pessimistic endings positively influence climate change risk perception and outcome efficacy because they heighten emotional arousal. Second, the strength of the proposed mediated relationship is attenuated by the values of a message receiver. We predict a less pronounced effect for those with liberal ideology, including those holding communitarian or egalitarian worldviews, than for conservatives and those holding individualist or hierarchical worldviews.

Across three experiments, we provide support for our propositions. In Study 1, we test the mediating role of emotional arousal on the impact of a climate change text with an optimistic vs. pessimistic ending on risk perception. It is important to note that we do not equate negative valence with fatalism. The pessimistic ending still presents the possibility of turning things around. Further, we test the moderating role of political ideology. In Study 2, we successfully replicate Study 1 by using a video stimulus combined with text, increasing the ecological validity of our findings. We also test the moderating role of message receiver values by adding a more nuanced measure of ideological commitments: cultural worldviews (Kahan et al., 2009), in addition to political ideology. Finally, in Study 3, using a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population, we add a fatalistic condition and introduce outcome efficacy as a dependent measure.

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