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Luke Boardman, Francis Golom, Ph.D.

Does Climate Change Remind us of our Mortality?:
The Influence of Mortality Salience in Climate Change Messages and its Effect on Climate Change Apathy

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Although there exists abundant scientific evidence regarding climate change, individuals have exhibited a mixed response in combating these changes (Scannell & Gifford, 2013; Liberman, Trope & Stephan, 2007). There remains a need to understand apathy toward climate change, particularly given the man-made behavioral causes of environmental degradation and individual access to information about these causes through various forms of print, digital and social media. The following study has two hypotheses, both of which are intended to understand human apathy towards climate change. Using a terror management theory (TMT; Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszcynski & Lyon, 1989) perspective, this study will examine the psychological interpretation of climate change messages from popular news sources. First, this study hypothesizes that these news messages will function as a manipulator of mortality salience (MS), which is an individual’s level of awareness of his or her own mortality. Specifically, individuals who read the messages about climate change will be more prone to death-related thinking and more aware of their own mortality than those who are not exposed. 

This study will incorporate the theory of contingencies of self-worth (CSW; Crocker & Wolfe, 2001); a theory which proposes that self-esteem is derived from meeting contingencies within the areas in which one invests his or her self-worth. For example, if an individual is a dedicated baseball player, his or her self-esteem will be contingent on how well he or she plays baseball. In the context of this specific study, the theory would explain that individuals who are primed for MS and experience an elevated level of MS will be influenced to retain his or her CSWs by reinforcing those contingencies. The baseball player who is experiencing an elevated level of MS would be influenced to reinforce his or her love for baseball as a means of coping with the anxiety that the MS evokes. 

This assumption leads to the second hypothesis of the current study: individuals who derive a significant level of self-esteem from identifying as pro-environmental will become less apathetic toward climate change than those who derive an insignificant level of self-esteem from being pro-environmental when experiencing elevated MS. This is because the increased MS will influence these individuals to reinforce the environmental identity CSW. Furthermore, individuals who derive an insignificant level of self-esteem from identifying as pro-environmental will exhibit more apathy toward climate change than those who derive a significant level of self-esteem from identifying as pro-environmental. This is because the increase in MS will influence these individuals to reinforce other CSWs, thereby diminishing their focus on climate change. 

This study will first conduct a manipulation check on the news articles in order to see at what level they increase the participants’ MS, which will be measured by the Death Thought Accessibility Measure (Greenberg et al., 1994). Participants will be divided into two groups, one that will read the news articles and one that will not. Then, both groups will complete self-report measures of environmental apathy, measured by the Environmental Attitudes scale (Thompson & Barton, 1994), and environmental identity, measured by the Environmental Identity scale (Clayton, 2003).


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