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Contact: Patricia Donovan
University at Buffalo

Emotional response to climate change influences whether we seek or avoid further information

People with negative feelings toward climate change seek out more information, study finds

IMAGE: Dr. Yang, University at Buffalo, is assistant professor of communication in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

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BUFFALO, N.Y. - Sixty-two percent of Americans now say they believe that global warming is happening, but 46 percent say they are "very sure" or "extremely sure" that it is not. Only 49 percent know why it is occurring, and about as many say they're not worried about it, according to the April report of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Because information about climate change is ubiquitous in the media, researchers at the University at Buffalo and the University of Texas, Austin, looked at why many Americans know so little about its causes and why many are not interested in finding out more.

The study, "What, Me Worry? The Role of Affect in Information Seeking and Avoidance" was conducted by Z. Janet Yang, PhD, assistant professor of communication at UB, and Lee Ann Kahlor, PhD, associate professor of public relations and advertising at UT Austin. It was published in the April 2013 issue of the journal Science Communication and is available at http://scx.sagepub.com/content/35/2/189.

Yang says, "Our key variables of interest were 'information seeking' and 'information avoidance.'

"We found that emotions have different impacts on both behaviors and that those with whom we socialize also are an important influence on our communication behaviors."

In particular, according to Yang, the study found:

The study involved an online survey of 736 undergraduates from two large U.S. universities (61.3 percent female, 62.5 percent white, median family income, $90,000).

The research survey was developed and executed using Qualtrics software and was designed to ascertain:

"Earlier research in social psychology has found that emotion, both positive and negative, is motivational and involves action tendency and action readiness," Yang explains.

"Those with a negative affect may seek out information, even if it includes negative predictions, in order to reduce their uncertainty and perhaps reassert control over the situation," says Yang.

"On the other hand, those with a positive affect who say they avoid seeking information may do so because they want to maintain their uncertainty - and their emotional equilibrium - from negative information that might upset them as well as contradict the attitudes of their social support group."

The researchers say the study results present several ways to improve the communication of risk information related to climate change. They say the data on subjects' reported information sufficiency suggests that risk communication about climate change might benefit from these approaches:

Yang conducts research centered on the communication of risk information related to science, health and environmental issues, and on social cognitive variables that influence information seeking and processing, health decision making and public perception of environmental and health risks.

Kahlor's research is centered on health and environmental risk communication with an emphasis on mass communication of complex science and information seeking.


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