This image and an image of a child were used to test responses to climate change messages.

“Climate change is considered psychologically distant because it doesn’t have a direct impact on our daily lives.”
–Rowena Foo

It’s no secret that a baby animal video is the fastest way to drive up YouTube views. But can that principle also persuade more people about the dangers of climate change?

That’s partly what Rowena Foo ’16 (Sungai Buluh, Malaysia) was testing last summer in research she conducted with environmental studies professor Christie Manning. Finding messages that resonate is challenging because most people don’t consider climate change an urgent danger, says Foo. “Climate change is considered psychologically distant because it doesn’t have a direct impact on our daily lives,” she adds. “Its uncertain consequences make it even hard to motivate people to take action against it.”

Their study was designed to discover which communication strategies might decrease that psychological distance, thus motivating people to carry out sustainable behavior.

Replicating Manning’s 2010 study to improve its design was Foo’s main project. She confirmed Manning’s earlier findings that subjects were significantly more sympathetic to climate change scenarios featuring a baby moose than one featuring a child. The subjects who saw the baby moose were also more likely to donate to climate change awareness advocacy.

It’s all part of the optimism bias, Foo explains: “When something bad is about to happen to people, they don’t believe it’s possible.” Despite the increased sympathy many subjects felt when the scenario included the baby moose, the research team hasn’t found anything to lower the personal psychological distance that stands between them and climate change consequences.

Foo’s chance to gain research experience grew out of a conversation that started in Manning’s course on Psychology of Sustainable Behavior, which Foo took as a first-year student. When the class discussed attitudes about climate change—one of the professor’s key research questions—Foo was fascinated, and kept talking with Manning after class. That led to the summer opportunity. “I didn’t expect to have such a close relationship with a professor, or for her to have such trust and faith in me,” Foo says.

Conducting science research was new to the sophomore, and so were the inevitable roadblocks. “There are so many variables, and human behavior is so complex,” she says. “There’s no way to control every variable. That was frustrating to me—but normal to Professor Manning.”

Another thing true of most research, Foo found, is that landmark breakthroughs are rare. “You hope that you’ll find something huge for humanity,” she says. “But for most experiments, like ours, you make small steps with each project—then you can zoom out and see the big picture.”

Foo is planning to continue studying psychology, and may add an environmental studies minor. She’s helping Manning with additional research and hopes to get more involved with sustainability organizations on campus this year. “I still might change my path,” she says, “but so far, I love it.”

December 2 2013

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