Political orientation and climate concern shape visual attention to climate change

  • Jennifer C. Whitman
  • Jiaying Zhao
  • Kevin H. Roberts
  • Rebecca M. Todd


Despite the scientific consensus, there is widespread public controversy about climate change. Previous explanations focused on interpretations hampered by political bias or insufficient knowledge of climate facts. We propose that public views of climate change may also be related to an attentional bias at a more basic level of cognitive processing. We hypothesized that selective visual attention towards or away from climate-related information would be associated with climate concern. To test prioritization of climate-related stimuli under conditions of limited attention, we asked participants to identify climate-related and neutral words within a rapid stream of stimuli. Undergraduate students attended to climate-related words more readily than neutral words. This attentional prioritization correlated with self-rated climate concern. We then examined this relationship in a more diverse community sample. Principal component analysis of survey data in the community sample revealed a component indexing a relationship between climate concern and political orientation. That component was correlated with the degree of selective inattention to climate-related words. Our findings suggest that climate-related communications may be most effective if tailored in a manner accounting for how attentional priorities differ between audiences—particularly those with different political orientations.



We thank Cassandra Bethel, Sumeyye Cakal, Hoiki Cheung, Bevan Lugg, Yu Luo, Joey Manaligod, Paniz Pasha, Rochelle Picardo, Emilie Ptak, Hwa Baek Song, Emily Suddes, Nicole Tsang, Aline Vilks, May Wang, Ru Qi Yu, and Michelle Zhang for their assistance with data collection and data management.

Author contribution

R. M. T. conceived the study with J. Z. R. M. T., J. C. W., J. Z., and K. H. R. contributed to the study design and J. C. W. analyzed the data and wrote the paper with R. M. T and J. Z.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

There are no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

Ethical approval

Ethical review was conducted by the University of British Columbia Behavioural Research Ethics Board.

Informed consent

All participants provided written informed consent prior to participation.

Supplementary material

10584_2018_2147_MOESM1_ESM.docx (96 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 96 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennifer C. Whitman
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jiaying Zhao
    • 1
    • 3
  • Kevin H. Roberts
    • 1
  • Rebecca M. Todd
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  3. 3.Institute for Resources, Environment and SustainabilityUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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