Do we feel less concerned by a natural disaster when it occurs far from home? And does this psychological distance apply to the climate crisis? A recent meta-analysis conducted by a team of researchers in the Netherlands suggests that this might not be the case. Studies have even shown that, on the contrary, climate events that occur far away do not necessarily lead to less citizen engagement on climate issues.
Are we less affected psychologically by a war or a natural disaster if it takes place far from the country in which we live? Well known to psychologists, this theory refers to the concept of psychological distance. Studied for years, it describes the capacity of the human brain to put events at a distance, often to protect itself from emotions such as stress or anxiety. So does this concept apply to the climate crisis? To find out, Dr. Anne M. van Valkengoed, a researcher at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), reviewed a large number of opinion polls. The results of her work have now been published in the journal, One Earth.
Among the studies reviewed, two, conducted in 2019 and 2021, surveyed more than 100,000 respondents in 121 countries and territories. According to these polls, 41% of respondents believe that climate change is a very serious threat to their home country. “Even in countries that are assumed to have many climate skeptics, most people perceive climate change as a risk for their home country,” the study says, citing the example of the United States, where more than 60% of respondents believe that climate change will harm the American population.
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Some studies included in this analysis suggest that, the more people perceive climate change through a lens of psychological distance, the less likely they are to engage in climate-friendly behavior and/or support climate change policies. This is not the case for all, however, as conversely, other research finds no significant relationship between perceptions of psychological distance and climate action.
Some research has even shown that viewing climate change as impacting distant places and communities actually encourages people to take more action. In addition, 25 out of 30 studies failed to show that experimentally decreasing psychological distance increased participants’ ecological engagement.
“Reducing psychological distance is considered an effective strategy to increase climate action. Yet, the idea of psychological distance as a barrier to climate action has also been criticized. It currently remains unclear to what extent psychological distance hinders climate action,” the study states.
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The effect of social influence
According to the research, the widespread (and obviously unfounded) idea that distancing oneself from an event leads to a lack of willingness to commit to the climate can also be counterproductive. Social influence plays a major role in an individual’s propensity to act (or not) for the planet. For example, if someone explains to another person that they aren’t bothering to be green because they think that their actions would have “too little impact,” the other person might be discouraged and not take action themselves. “Also, [people] might think that their efforts are futile because real environmental change relies on the combined efforts of many,” explains the study news release.
In light of this evidence, the paper suggests that businesses and policymakers should be focusing on “prioritizing evidence over intuition in policymaking to promote climate action.” In other words, they should focus communication and outreach strategies on the understanding that many people already perceive climate change as happening “in the here and now,” and that they may be affected by, or feel concerned about, events related to the climate crisis, even if these are happening far from home.
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