Political orientation and climate concern shape visual attention to climate change

Abstract

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.

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Notes

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    UBC is one of the most sustainable campuses in the world, e.g., offering 647 sustainability-related courses, engaging 3100 students in residence on sustainable actions, reducing 59% water use per student since 2000, reducing 30% greenhouse gases since 2007, and diverting 67% of waste (UBC Sustainability Initiative 2017).

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Acknowledgments

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.

Funding

This research was supported by NSERC Discovery grants to R. M. Todd (RGPIN-2014-04202) and to J. Zhao (RGPIN-2014-05617), the Leaders Opportunity Fund from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to R. M. Todd (32102), by a Canadian Institutes for Health Research New Investigator Award to R. M. Todd, the Canada Research Chairs Program to J. Zhao, by a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship (756-2016-0829) to J. C. Whitman, and by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant (430-2016-00031) awarded to R.M. Todd, J. Zhao, and J.C. Whitman.

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Contributions

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.

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Correspondence to Jennifer C. Whitman.

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There are no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

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

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All participants provided written informed consent prior to participation.

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Whitman, J.C., Zhao, J., Roberts, K.H. et al. Political orientation and climate concern shape visual attention to climate change. Climatic Change 147, 383–394 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2147-9

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