Yang, Z. J., & Kahlor, L. (2013). What, me worry? The role of affect in information seeking and avoidance. Science Communication, 35(2), 189–212. doi:10.1177/1075547012441873
How do people respond to needing information about something as scary as climate change? Yang and Kahlor investigated the role of emotion when people seek new information or stop paying attention to information about climate change. People who were worried about climate change were likely to search out information, and people who were hopeful were not – probably because they didn’t want new information to change their beliefs.
Theories on risk and social norms shaped this study. The risk information seeking and processing model (described in Theoretical Basis below) explains variance in how people seek, avoid, and process risk information. Risk and social norms shape how people go about seeking or actively avoiding information.
To understand why people seek or avoid information on climate change, the researchers conducted an online survey to study respondents’:
- Perception of their current state of knowledge on climate change
- Perception of the seriousness of the risk
- Negative and positive emotions about climate change: worry, concern, and anxiety; excitement, hope, and happiness
- Beliefs about whether others expect them to seek information on climate change
- Perception of their own ability to identify sources of information and understand them
- Attitudes toward seeking out information about climate change, such as whether information seeking is valuable, useful, productive, or wise
The authors surveyed 736 undergraduates in entry-level courses from varying majors, in two large U.S. research universities in spring 2011. The sample was predominantly female and white; the average age was 21 years old. The median annual family income was $90,000. The authors acknowledge that this convenience sample is not likely generalizable, but the findings are still interesting. The data were analyzed through structural equation analyses.
The researchers report two primary findings that informal science educators might find useful.
The first is that respondents who were more likely to seek out rather than avoid climate change information were those who felt worried and anxious about climate change. Those who felt hopeful, excited, or happy about climate change were more likely to avoid or ignore risk information. The authors note that this result is different from findings from other research on climate change education, in which positive emotions stimulated more active information seeking. Among other reasons, the authors suggest that people with positive feelings about climate change may not want new information to change what they already believe.
The second finding of interest is that respondents who were more confident in their ability to engage in information seeking about climate change also reported that they already had knowledge about this topic. The implication is that people with more capacity to gather information about climate change are less likely to avoid new information – they already know how to deal with it.
The analytical model for this paper comes from the risk information seeking and processing model proposed by Griffin, Dunwoody, and Neuwirth (1999). This model offers a map of potential predictors of information seeking and avoidance. One of the important principles of this model for this paper is “sufficiency”: that people make every effort to process information until they feel confident about the validity of their judgment. Then they may stop seeking out new information that might undermine their confidence in what they already believe.
Implications for Practice
Guiding people who lack confidence in their ability to process the large volume of research on climate change is an approach to risk communication presents an opportunity for informal science educators to meet these learners’ needs flexibly. But this paper suggests that it is important to know how learners feel about the subject in order to know what kinds of information they may seek. The authors of this study suggest that formative audience evaluation would help communicators establish cognitive or emotional approaches to messaging. The authors also recommend that approaching communication about climate change by debunking false beliefs or arousing a sense of curiosity may alleviate avoidance behaviors.
Griffin, R. J., Dunwoody, S., & Neuwirth, K. (1999). Proposed model of the relationship of risk information seeking and processing to the development of preventive behaviors. Environmental Research, 80<’(Suppl. 2), S230–S245.