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Communicating Distance: What this Means for Environmental Public Opinion


Political scientists have spent decades providing explanations for political support of policy proposals. On the one hand, individuals appear to concern themselves with the personal risks or benefits of a project; on the other, their appraisals appear to be more ideologically based, ultimately aligning with one’s party. While many argue this is a product of an unknowing and uninterested public, simply swaying one direction and then the other, this research promotes a different stance: perceived psychological distance helps to explain variation in political attitude formation, accounting for which considerations an individual will turn to in one instance and which they will rely on in another when developing their stance of communicating the issues.

This dissertation asks how perceived psychological distance relates to energy perceptions and political communication. According to the Construal Level Theory (CLT) of psychological distance, from social psychology, evaluations and behaviors differ based on the extent to which something is perceived as psychologically “proximate” or “distant” (Trope & Liberman 2010). Psychological distance has yet to be applied to political attitudes and communication and yet its utility is intuitive — 1) politicians strategically communicate to make issues more “proximate” or “distant” and 2) political perceptions and actions likely vary depending on the extent to which they are viewed as “proximate” or “distant.” To investigate this question, this research maps psychological distance onto energy politics across two domains, public opinion and communication.

The first study relies on a survey of residents along the proposed Keystone XL route. Half of the respondents are asked about their attitudes toward Keystone XL (the proximate issue) and half are asked about their attitudes toward offshore oil drilling (the distant issue). Each of the respondents is given objective information about the issues, with half of the sample also receiving a pro-development frame emphasizing the benefits of the project. Results indicate that distance serves to moderate attitudes, with those asked about the proximate issue exhibiting a significant framing effect compared to those asked about the distant issue who were unmoved by the frame.

The second study assesses the extent to which online communications reflect the expectations of CLT. Analysis of over a million tweets related to Keystone XL finds little difference between how those living more proximate to the issue frame it compared to those living further away. In general, both appear to prefer concrete frames related to jobs, local economy, spills and environmental risk. Similarly, manual coding from the Linguistic Category Model (LCM) suggests the abstractness of the tweets also do not vary due to distance. However, the expectations from CLT do appear to apply to retweets. In this case, individuals more proximate to the pipeline were more likely to retweet concrete tweets and those further from the pipeline more likely to retweet abstract tweets. This suggests the persuasiveness of a tweet varies by distance.

The final study applies CLT to political advocacy groups, arguing they should recognize differences in persuasiveness due to the location of the target audience and adjust their strategies accordingly. I identified local and national advocacy groups in favor of or opposed to the pipeline and analyzed their Twitter communications as well as the effectiveness of these communications. According to the results, local and national groups rely on a mix of frames in order to appeal to a broad section of the U.S. public (those living closer or further from the pipeline). However, this is less so the case for the pro-Keystone XL groups, likely due to the fact that they have fewer resource constraints and are therefore not as reliant on broad public support. The study also finds that in general these frames tend to be more concrete than abstract, contrary to the expectations of CLT. At the same time, the public appears to prefer concrete frames, retweeting these more often than abstract frames.

This work examines the relationship between physical proximity and public opinion in order to better understand some of the previously unexplained variation in environmental public opinion. Together, the studies suggest that distance matters to public opinion and political communication, but the relationship is highly context dependent. In the media effects setting, distance moderates framing effects. Similarly, when exposed to online communications from elites, members of the public are more or less persuaded by these based on their geographic proximity to the policy issue. However, this is not similarly reflected other communication settings, such as political advocacy group activities and within network online communications. Thus, other facets of the political environment appear to influence the role of distance in public opinion and political communication. The messiness of politics requires additional investigation into when distance helps us account for political variability.

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