Why Happy People Hide From Climate Change

Ignorance may be bliss, but bliss also leads to ignorance—at least when it comes to climate change.

New research found that when people have positive feelings toward climate change, such as hopefulness or excitement, they are more likely to avoid seeking information about it. Those who felt concerned, anxious or depressed about the topic, on the other hand, were more likely to seek information about it, new research shows.

The study, published recently in the journal Science Communication, surveyed 736 undergraduate students. After asking them how they felt about the topic, the study then looked to see how likely they were to seek and gather more knowledge about it, said study author Janet Yang, a researcher at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

While 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, 16 percent say they don't think that it is, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The rest are undecided.

Most people—51 percent—also say they don't think global warming is caused by people, or don't know, according to a Pew Research Center Survey. In other words, they do not know that manmade carbon dioxide is increasing worldwide temperatures, the conclusion reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The most surprising result to Yang was that she uncovered a social "norm" to engage in information avoidance—if a person thought their peers were more likely to avoid information on the topic, then they were more likely to avoid information on it as well. Typically, as is the case with other environmental issues, social norms—what you believe other people want you to do—lead people to seek more information, not less, Yang said.

"If you believe people think you should know more, you are more likely to seek out information," she said.

In this case, if a person spends time with others who avoid information about climate change, then they are more likely to do the same, she said.

The research suggests that when trying to inform people or get them to care about and do something regarding global warming, it may be useful to stir up some kind of emotional response.

"Stirring up emotion and using more visual story-telling—based on the study I think that'd be effective at getting people to seek more information," she said. "We need to deliver a sense of urgency that can effectively stimulate emotional responses to this issue among the audience," the authors continued in the paper.

It could also be useful to portray information-seeking as responsible and favorable. Furthermore, it's important that people understand that they can do something about it; those who thought their actions have no effect were more likely to avoid seeking information, Yang said.

"Risk communication about climate change might benefit from arousing a sense of curiosity or debunking false beliefs about current knowledge so that people are not complacent with what they already know," the authors wrote.

Yang said that she cares deeply about climate change, because it will have "a huge impact on our generation and future generations." When she confronts climate change deniers, she tries to convince them that it's a real problem, if she thinks it's appropriate. But if it's a casual or dinner conversation, "I don't always engage, because I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable," she said. "But perhaps I should."