Climate change anxiety and perceptions of complexity

Friday 11:15-11:45am PT / 12:15-12:45pm MT / 1:15-1:45pm CT / 2:15-2:45pm ET Online


Jonathan Ham, Temple University
Chelsea Helion, Temple University
Tim Shipley, Temple University

Climate change is the result of complex interactions between natural science systems and social systems. For humans, climate change may have both emotional causes and emotional consequences. In this study, we asked how the perceived complexity of climate change relates to anxiety about climate change. We theorized that differences in depth of understanding of climate change captured by the perception of complexity might distinguish adaptive from maladaptive levels of climate change anxiety. We conducted online surveys with an undergraduate sample (n = 209) with measures of climate change anxiety and perceived complexity of climate change. We found no relationship between the perceived complexity of climate change and anxiety. We also conducted exploratory factor analyses of our measures. We identified three factors in our measure of climate change anxiety (general anxiety, persistence of anxiety, and difficulty regulating anxiety), and two factors in our measures of perceived complexity (the complexity of cause, and the complexity of effect). Analyses conducted with these factors found that 1) the perceived complexity of cause was negatively associated with general anxiety about climate change (the more complex they thought the problem was the less general anxiety they reported), and 2) overall levels of persistent anxiety were lower than general anxiety. Together, these suggest that students have effective strategies for regulating negative emotions about climate change, and that thinking about cause and avoiding effect may be one of these strategies. We are currently testing this hypothesis using a novel information-seeking paradigm where subjects will be presented with a complex scenario and asked to choose to learn more about the cause or the effect of the scenario. The paradigm will be followed with measures of emotional outcomes relevant to the scenario. We hypothesize that choosing to learn about cause will be associated with more positive emotional outcomes.