Reducing Resistance to Communication about Climate Change Using an Applied Self-affirmation Intervention

John Kotcher

Major Professor: Edward Wile Maibach, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Xiaoquan Zhao, Emily Vraga, Christopher Clarke

Research Hall, #301
September 13, 2016, 01:00 PM to 10:00 AM


Self-affirmation is a psychological process in which individuals draw upon important aspects of their self-concept to maintain a positive evaluation of themselves. Previous work has found that self-affirmation can reduce biased processing of information that conflicts with individuals’ prior beliefs or political ideology. However, little research has examined the effect of self-affirmation in the domain of climate change communication.

Furthermore, much of the existing literature has relied upon methods of inducing self-affirmation that are highly contrived and not easily transferrable to applied public engagement efforts (e.g., having participants write an essay for several minutes before reading a message). Previous work suggests that self-affirmation works in part by activating a number cognitions and emotions associated with close interpersonal relationships. Specifically, prior evidence suggests that self-affirmation increases feelings of 1) love, 2) connectedness, and 3) social belongingness; and 4) increases the importance attached to aspects of an individual’s identity tied to their role in close interpersonal relationships (e.g., as a friend or family member) relative to the threatened aspects of their identity (e.g., their political identity). Therefore, one goal of this dissertation was to test a novel method of inducing self-affirmation embedded directly into the content of a message by prompting individuals to think about the importance of these interpersonal relationships and what they would do to protect their friends and family members from a threat like climate change. I conducted a randomized, controlled experiment to compare this applied form of self-affirmation to traditional methods of inducing self-affirmation in terms of its ability to reduce ideologically motivated resistance to information about climate change. Additionally, I investigated whether this new method of self-affirmation operates through a similar psychological mechanism compared to traditional methods of self-affirmation by examining the aforementioned variables that may mediate the effect of self-affirmation on attitudes about climate change.

Contrary to expectations, I found that the traditional method of self-affirmation, the applied method of self-affirmation, as well as the combination of the two have an undesirable direct effect on multiple climate change beliefs and attitudes. However, consistent with expectations, mediation analysis reveals that the traditional and applied forms of self-affirmation (as well as the combination of the two) have a relatively smaller, but desirable indirect effect on a number of climate change beliefs and attitudes. These indirect effects operate through changes in the importance people attach to aspects of their identity tied to their role in interpersonal relationships relative to their political identity, as well as increased feelings of love and connectedness, but not through social belongingness. This pattern of effects was consistent across ideological groups, including political liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.