Search TESS:


But how do you feel about climate change? Assessing affective reactions to climate change

Download data and study materials

Download proposal

Principal Investigator(s):

Janet Swim
The Pennsylvania State University
Home page:

Brittany P. Bloodhart
George Mason University
Home Page:

Sample size: 600
Field period: 09/13/2010-03/08/2011


Emotions (empathy and distress, worry, guilt and shame, boredom, pride, and hope about climate change, as well as beliefs about climate change were associated with willingness to take personal action to address climate change. Viewing an image of a polar bear and koala and reading that these animals were harmed by climate change increased the likelihood of these feelings. There was no effect of these images on beliefs about climate (its existence, human cause, and seriousness). Contrary to predictions, the effect of this manipulation was not stronger when participants took an empathic versus an objective perspective.
However, for environmentalists, the empathic perspective relative to the objective and control condition increased willingness to take personal action to address climate change. Results suggest that this effect may be a result of increased hope in the empathic condition, potentially reflecting a hope for a different outcome for the animals.


Hypothesis 1: Empathic perspective taking will increase fear, empathy, personal and collective guilt, shame, and anger at deniers of climate change, and decrease boredom and anger at those who accuse others of causing climate change.

Hypothesis 2: Empathic perspective taking will increase willingness to engage in climate change mitigating behaviors, and affect (empathy as well as other emotions influenced by perspective taking) will mediate this relationship, while controlling for beliefs about climate change.

Hypothesis 3: Empathic perspective taking will increase the impact of affect and objective perspective taking will increase the impact of beliefs about climate change on willingness to engage in climate change mitigating behaviors.

Experimental Manipulations:

Independent variables: Participants in the experimental conditions will read Berenguer's (2007) empathic or objective perspective taking instructions followed by two pictures of animals affected by climate change and a short text about the pictures. Control participants will not be given perspective taking instructions and pictures.

Individual difference: A measure from the public affairs assessing whether participants would describe themselves as an environmentalists was included as a potential moderator of effects of the independent variable. We collapsed "yes, definitely" and "yes, somewhat responses into a "yes" category because few gave the first response.

Key Dependent Variables:

Emotions: Participants indicated the extent to which they worry, hope, guilt, shame, authentic pride, empathy, anger at accusers, and anger at those who deny climate change guilt, shame, authentic pride, and boredom. Two emotion words are presented with each emotion to convey the meaning of the terms. We include two ways to conceive of empathy: concern for others and feeling distressed (Batson & Ahmad, 2009; Davis, 1980). We excluded the two measures of anger because few endorsed them and a positive correlation between these two types of anger suggested that respondents did not understand one or both of the items. We created two scales from the remaining emotions and left three emotions as single item measures: We combined empathic and distress ratings into one measure of empathy because of the correlation between the two measures, r(601)= .73, p < .001. Exploratory factor analyses of the six self-reflective moral emotions indicated a two factor structure. One factor represented guilt/shame for their own and the U.S.’s contribution to climate change (Cronbach’s α=.82) The second factor represented pride for their own and U.S. action to address climate change, r(601)=.35, p < .001. A positive correlation between worry and hope suggested that hope was not the inverse of worry. So, we kept these two emotions as separate, r(587)=.29, p < .001; Boredom was left as a single item measure.

Climate change beliefs. Participants will be asked about the existence of climate change, human contributions to climate change, and the seriousness of climate change. Responses to these three items were standardized and averaged together to form one scale (Cronbach’s α=.89).

Climate change mitigating behavior. Participants will be asked about the their willingness to engage in two curtailment behaviors (a transportation and a household heating behavior), one energy efficient investment, and participation in a form of collective action (contacting government officials). Factor analyses indicated that these scales formed a single factor. Thus, responses to these scales were averaged together to form one measure of pro-environmental willingness (Cronbach’s α=.89).

Summary of Findings:

Hypothesis 1:
Respondents who took an empathic perspective (M=3.25, 2.24, and 2.84) and objective perspective (M=3.11, 2.47, and 2.77) reported more empathy, guilt/shame, and worry than those in the baseline condition (M=2.84, 2.00, and 2.52) but the two perspective conditions did not differ from each other, F(2,506)=6.26, 3.74, 4.37, p’s < .01,.02, .01, respectively.
Environmental identity interacted with perspective taking for hope, F(2,506)=5.17, p < .01. For non-environmentalists, the empathic (M=2.49) and objective conditions (M=2.58) did not differ from each other but both differed from the control condition (M=2.18). For environmentalists, those in the empathic (M=2.91) and baseline condition (M=2.88) reported more hope than those in the objective condition (M=2.57).
Perspective taking also influenced boredom, F(2,506)=3.36, p=.04 . Unlike the previous results, those in the objective condition reported more boredom (M=2.10) than those in the control condition (M=2.02) and the empathy condition (M=2.04).

Hypothesis 2
Perspective taking effected willingness to take action, but only for those who were environmentalists, Finteraction (2,511)=3.52, p=.03. Environmentalists were more willing to take action in the empathic conditions (M=6.32) than in the objective (M=5.95) and baseline conditions (M=6.22), the latter two conditions did not differ. There was no difference among the means for the non-environmentalists (M=5.02, 5.33, and 4.92, for empathic, objective, and control, respectively).
For environmental activists, there was a marginally signification indirect effect of empathic versus objective perspective taking on willingness to take action via feelings of Hope (90% confidence interval for the indirect effect=.0002 to .08). For all participants, there were indirect effects of empathic versus objective perspective on willingness to take action for all participants via empathy (95% confidence interval for the indirect effect=0.06 to .01) and worry (95% confidence interval for the indirect effect= .06 to .01) but not guilt/shame (95% confidence interval for the indirect effect= -.02 to .02).

Hypothesis 3
Climate change beliefs, r=.51, empathy/distress, r=.44, worry, r=.47, guilt/shame, r=.35, boredom, r=-.29, pride, r=.16, and hope, r=.24, correlated with willingness to take action but the strength the associations did not differ by perspective taking. Perspective taking did not impact climate change beliefs.

Copyright © 2014, TESS