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People Who Are Unmoved by Climate Destruction Are Less Emotional in General

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New research suggests that people who are apathetic towards climate change may be more emotionally impassive in other areas of their lives. 

Despite a public discourse that suggests otherwise, clear majorities of people believe that climate change is a threat that their governments are not addressing properly. Two-thirds of Americans believe that more should be done on a federal level to reduce the effects of global climate change.

But there remains a significant proportion of people who appear less emotionally impacted by environmental destruction, particularly, say the authors of a new study published in the journal Emotion, “more ideologically conservative and less pro-environmental individuals."

Their new research suggests that this apathy may be less to do with their attitudes to environmental protection and more indicative of a general emotional impassivity.

The work, published by University of Michigan graduate student Logan Bickel and psychology professor Stephanie Preston, involved three online studies that examined 600 volunteers’ responses to a variety of emotional stimuli.

Bickel and Preston found that people not concerned when viewing pictures of damage to the environment also didn’t react as negatively to other stimuli, such as images of:

  • wounded soldiers
  • injured athletes
  • moldy food
  • crying babies

These individuals also reported feeling less empathy for others in daily life and were less awed by nature. Heightened impassivity did not associate with trait anxiety or psychopathy, aside from their reduced empathy.

Interestingly, their apathy extended beyond negative emotion – these respondents also reacted less to positive stimuli such as images of:

  • happy babies
  • piles of money
  • ice cream

Preston explained that some people’s lack of concern for the environment could simply be a characteristic of their emotional range. “Given that our sense of risk and decisions are strongly guided by emotions, more impassive people are less inclined to dedicate resources to this slowly building crisis,” she commented.

Appeals to help the environment must consider variation in people’s emotional make-up and devise new tactics for those who are unpersuaded by appeals to emotion, said Logan.

Reference: Bickel LA, Preston SD. Environmental impassivity: Blunted emotionality undermines concern for the environment. Emotion. 2022. doi: 10.1037/emo0001072

Meet the Author
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Senior Science Writer