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Climate Change and Compensatory Control: Harnessing Threat for Action


To avoid global disaster from impending climate change, experts agree that immediate preventative action is required. However, studies show that both belief in the dangers of climate change and concern about the consequences surprisingly do not reliably predict engaging in more proactive action. This critical disconnect between attitudes and behavior may be due to a lack of perceived control that accompanies the threat of climate change. We posit that climate change threat is associated with feeling unable to exert meaningful influence over climate outcomes—a loss in perceived control—which in turn hinders preventative action. On the other hand, compensatory control theory suggests that this decreased perceived control instills a motivation for control, which may present an opportunity to capitalize on the motivation to promote climate change action. Across five studies, we examine the relationship between climate change, perceived control, and behavior. In a nationally representative survey, we show that proximate climate change threat is associated with less perceived control, which in turn is associated with less self-reported pro-environmental behavior. In two online experiments, we make salient the threat of climate change and document the loss of control and the increased motivation for control relative to a comparable threat. To attempt to utilize this motivation for social gain, we then test message framing as a way of appealing to the motivation for control. In an online experiment we show that a control motivation is associated with greater preference for environmental advocacy ads framed in terms of control. As a test of this framing in the field, a big data field experiment on social media showed a preference for control framing over a common call to action message. Together, these findings indicate that the threat of climate change is associated with lower perceived control, but also a motivation that can be used for social gain. This research provides important insight into the compensatory control model and the features of climate change that present a distinct challenge to communication and mitigating action.

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