Personal Stories Can Change Climate Change Beliefs and

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Personal Stories Can Change Climate Change Beliefs and

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Personal Stories Can Change Climate Change Beliefs and Attitudes: The Mediating Role of Emotion
Running head: Personal Stories of Climate Change Impacts
Abel Gustafson1* Matthew T. Ballew1 Matthew H. Goldberg1 Matthew J. Cutler2 Seth A. Rosenthal1 Anthony Leiserowitz1
*corresponding author | [email protected]
1 Yale Program on Climate Change Communication School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Yale University New Haven, CT
1 Northeast Fisheries Science Center National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Woods Hole, MA
Funding for this research was provided by: The 11th Hour Project, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.

1 Personal Stories of Climate Change Impacts
Personal Stories Can Shift Climate Change Beliefs and Risk Perceptions: The Mediating Role of Emotion
Abstract Sharing personal stories of how climate change is already harming people is a promising communication strategy to engage diverse and even skeptical audiences. Using two experiments, we test the effects of a radio story on the climate change beliefs and risk perceptions of political moderates and conservatives. The radio story, which aired on hundreds of stations across the U.S., is a North Carolina sportsman's personal account of how climate change has already affected the places he loves. Both experiments found positive effects on global warming beliefs and risk perceptions. Additionally, Study 2 found these effects were mediated by emotional reactions of worry and compassion. These studies suggest that personal stories can be a persuasive communication strategy.
Keywords: climate change, emotions, storytelling, experiment, anecdotes

2 Personal Stories of Climate Change Impacts
Personal Stories Can Change Climate Change Beliefs and Risk Perceptions: The Mediating Role of Emotion
Engaging people in the issue of climate change can be difficult because many people view it as abstract, distant, and impersonal (e.g., Leiserowitz, 2006; Weber, 2006). In light of these challenges, scholars suggest that messages about aggregate long-term impacts (e.g., global sea-level rise by 2100) may often be less effective than messages about how climate change is harming people here and now (van der Linden, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2015). This is, in part, because personally relevant stories can increase emotional engagement by reducing psychological distance (e.g., Van Boven, Kane, McGraw, & Dale, 2010).
Further, research has found that affective responses may be a mechanism by which climate change messages affect beliefs and risk perceptions (e.g., Nabi, Gustafson, & Jensen, 2018; Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). However, these prior studies on the mediating role of emotions have tested the effects of messages about aggregate-level impacts of climate change, not stories about impacts on relatable individuals.
Here, we help connect these two areas of research by testing (a) the persuasive effects of a radio story about the negative impacts of climate change on an individual, and in a follow-up experiment we test (b) an explanatory mechanism: emotional reactions (specifically, worry and compassion) as mediators of the effects of this story. Personal Stories of Impacts as a Climate Change Communication Strategy
Extant theory and research suggests that stories of the impacts of climate change on relatable individuals are an effective persuasion strategy. First, people tend to view climate change as distant and abstract (Leiserowitz, 2006). Therefore, stories that translate information about the effects of climate change into “relatable and concrete personal experiences” (van der

3 Personal Stories of Climate Change Impacts Linden, et al., 2015, p. 759) may be especially effective at reducing psychological distance and increasing emotional engagement, thereby increasing perceived importance and risk perceptions (Van Boven et al., 2010; Lu & Schuldt, 2016).
Further, research has found that storytelling can facilitate persuasion, particularly with oppositional audiences (e.g., Dahlstrom, 2014; Moyer-Gusé, 2008). This persuasive effectiveness is likely due to (a) heightened character identification which can lead to decreased social distance and stronger in-group associations (Hinyard & Kreuter, 2007; So & Nabi, 2013), and (b) transportation (immersion in the story) which can reduce counterarguing in oppositional audiences (Moyer-Gusé, 2008; Van Laer et al., 2013).
Applied to climate communication, this research suggests that stories of how climate change has impacted relatable individuals may lead an audience to identify with those individuals and vicariously experience those impacts (see review in Jones & Peterson, 2017). For audience members, these vicarious experiences may function similarly to personal experience with climate change impacts, which can have a powerful influence on how people view and act on the issue (e.g., Myers, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Akerlof, & Leiserowitz, 2012; van der Linden, 2014).
In Study 1, we test whether a nationally aired radio story about climate impacts on a relatable individual can shift the climate change beliefs and risk perceptions of political conservatives in the U.S. Based on prior research and theory, we expected that: H1: Listening to a personal story about the impacts of climate change will have positive effects on global warming beliefs, worry about global warming, risk perceptions, and issue priority.
Study 1 Methods

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Participants. Participants were recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Respondents were limited to political conservatives because this segment of the population is of high practical importance because they tend to be less concerned (than liberals) about global warming and its effects (Leiserowitz et al., 2019).
Prospective participants were first screened for political ideology by responding to the question “In general, I think of myself as…” on a five-point scale (1 = very conservative; 2 = somewhat conservative; 3 = moderate; 4 = somewhat liberal; 5 = very liberal). Only conservatives (those who selected “1” or “2”) advanced to participate in Study 1 (N = 408). After data cleaning (i.e., removing participants who failed a comprehension check and those who did not listen to the whole radio story), 362 participants remained as valid cases for analysis (control n = 195; treatment n = 167). Most (73%) identified as “somewhat conservative,” while the rest (27%) were “very conservative,” which is similar to national proportions (e.g., Leiserowitz et al., 2019; 65% “somewhat” and 35% “very” conservative). The final sample was 52% female, with a mean age of 39.69 (SD = 12.49). The most common level of educational attainment was a bachelor’s degree (40%), followed by “some college or associate’s degree” (37%), “graduate or professional degree” (13%), high school diploma (10%), and less than high school diploma (11%). The sample was mostly White (82%), followed by Latino (6%), African-American (5%), and Asian-American (3%).
Procedure and stimuli. Participants were randomly assigned to either the control condition, in which they completed a word-sorting task, or to the treatment condition, in which they listened to a real 90-second radio story. The radio story features Richard Mode, an older North Carolina sportsman, who tells of his sadness from seeing the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems in which he hunts and fishes. This story is from a national radio program on

5 Personal Stories of Climate Change Impacts climate change that currently airs a new story each weekday on more than 500 stations across the U.S.1 The full transcript is presented in the supplementary materials, and the audio is available online (see Peach, 2015).
Participants began the study by completing a set of survey measures about their climate change beliefs and risk perceptions (pre-test) before either listening to the radio story (treatment condition) or completing a word-sorting task (control condition). Then, participants responded to a “distractor” item that presented an image and descriptive text about the upcoming release of a Star Wars movie and asked participants how likely they were to watch the movie. Finally, all participants completed post-test measures identical to the pre-test measures, along with demographic questions.
Measures. The radio story describes the reality of global warming, its impacts on people and the natural environment, and the importance of addressing it, so we measured opinions about global warming regarding its reality, its importance, and its impacts. These measures were adapted from the Climate Change in the American Mind survey (e.g., Leiserowitz et al., 2019). Participants used seven-point Likert scales to indicate their belief in the existence of global warming (1 = “I strongly believe global warming is NOT happening,” 7 = “I strongly believe global warming IS happening”), their belief that global warming is human-caused (1 = “I believe global warming is caused entirely by natural changes in the environment,” 7 = “I believe global warming is caused entirely by human activities”), how worried they are about global warming (1 = “I am not at all worried,” 7 = “I am very worried”), how personally important global warming is to them (1 = “Not at all important,” 7 = “Very important”), and how high a priority global warming should be for the president and Congress (1 = “Low,” 7 = “Very high”). To assess the
1 It is unlikely that prior exposure could have affected the results, because the average audience of the radio program is about 134,000 (1 in 1,560 American adults), and exposure would be randomly distributed between conditions.

6 Personal Stories of Climate Change Impacts perceived risks of global warming, participants were asked “How much do you think global warming will harm… you personally,” “… wildlife in your area,” “… recreational fishing,” “… commercial fishing,” and “future generations of people?” For each of these five risk perceptions, participants reported their response on a seven-point scale from “Not at all” (1) to “A great deal” (7). Further details about the wording and response categories of these measures are presented in the supplementary materials.
An exploratory factor analysis (EFA) performed on a randomly selected half of the Study 1 sample provided strong evidence that the ten risk perception items represent one factor. A confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) on the other half of the sample corroborated this unidimensional structure.2 Therefore, we created pre-test and post-test composite variables (pretest Cronbach’s  = .97; post-test  = .97), by taking the average of the standardized z-scores of each item and standardizing the resulting variable (M = 0, SD = 1). These pre- and post-test composite variables represent overall opinion about global warming and its impacts.
Because individuals’ personal connection to fishing may influence responses, participants also reported their frequency of fishing during the past 12 months. This variable was used as a covariate in all analyses. Analyses
H1 predicted that global warming beliefs and risk perceptions would be positively affected by listening to the story about the negative impacts that global warming is already having on a relatable individual. To test this hypothesis, an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was used for each individual variable and the composite variable to compare post-test means in
2 The details of these factor analyses and the creation of the composite variables are reported in the supplementary materials.

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the treatment and control conditions while controlling for the corresponding pre-test variable and

frequency of fishing during the past 12 months.


Results of the ANCOVAs support H1. Relative to the control, the treatment resulted in

consistent positive small-to-medium sized effects (Schäfer & Schwarz, 2019) on many beliefs,

risk perceptions, and on the composite variable (Table 1). Including gender, education, and race

as covariates in the Study 1 analyses did not alter the results, so we report the results without

these covariates.

Table 1

Effects of experimental condition on outcome variables in Study 1.

Dependent Variables
Happening Human-Caused Worry Personal Importance* Issue Priority for Govt. Personal Harm Harm Local Wildlife Harm Recreational Fishing Harm Commercial Fishing Harm Future Generations Composite Variable

Marginal Means ctrl. treat. 4.37 4.62 3.86 3.97 3.42 3.62 3.51 3.69 3.46 3.66 3.12 3.36 3.92 4.15 3.78 4.22 4.01 4.42 4.38 4.42 -.053 .069

SE ctrl. treat. .056 .060 .060 .054 .058 .062 .065 .065 .051 .054 .064 .069 .065 .070 .063 .068 .066 .071 .063 .068 .016 .017

SD ctrl. treat. 0.782 0.775 0.838 0.698 0.810 0.801 0.908 0.840 0.712 0.698 0.894 0.892 0.908 0.905 0.880 0.879 0.922 0.918 0.880 0.879 0.223 0.220

Test Statistics




8.80 2.45 5.25 3.76* 6.82 6.47 5.96 20.33 17.43 0.22 26.72

.003 .118 .022 .053* .009 .011 .015 .000 .000 .642 < .001

.024 .007 .015 .010* .019 .018 .016 .054 .047 .001 .070

Note. Significant effects in bold. * = marginal significance. All results are from ANCOVAs with covariates of pretest scores on the corresponding variable and frequency of fishing in the last 12 months. SE = standard error; ctrl. = control condition; treat. = treatment condition; p = p-value; ηp2 = partial eta-squared effect size. The marginal means of the 10 individual items are on each item’s original scale, but the composite variable is standardized (M = 0, SD = 1).

Study 1 Discussion In sum, Study 1 provides evidence of consistent small-to-medium sized effects of an
ecologically valid climate change message (i.e., a nationally-broadcast radio story) across these outcome variables in an audience of conservative Americans. These findings provide support for

8 Personal Stories of Climate Change Impacts extant theory and research suggesting that personal stories about climate change impacts is an effective means of persuasion.
One limitation of Study 1 is that the treatment condition (a radio story) and the control condition (a word-sorting task) are very different experiences. Thus, the two conditions may have different levels and types of selective participation (i.e., one requires audio capabilities), attrition, attention, and interest. Further, the word-sorting task took less time (mean = 28 seconds) than listening to the 90-second radio story, and it is unclear how this difference may have affected the results. Another limitation is that in the musical intro to the treatment audio clip the radio story’s narrator introduced himself as “Dr. firstname_lastname," and stated the title of the series which included the word “climate” and the name of a well-known university (Peach, 2015). It is possible that these statements may have biased the responses of participants. Finally, while Study 1 demonstrates that this radio story is persuasive, it did not directly test mechanism(s) by which it was effective. Study 2’s addresses each of these limitations. An Explanatory Mechanism: Emotional Responses
A key mechanism that may account for the effects of this story about the personal impacts of climate change is emotional responses. For example, the emotions-as-frames model suggests that emotions can act as frames that guide responses to a message (Nabi, 2003; 2007; Nabi et al., 2018). In the context of climate change, a series of experiments have found that the effects of gain- and loss-framed messages about climate change on individuals' beliefs, attitudes, and risk perceptions are mediated by emotions such as fear and hope (Nabi et al., 2018; Nabi & Myrick, 2018; Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). Another study found that the effects of a message about drought in Africa that used a compassion prime were mediated by feelings of compassion and were strongest among political conservatives and moderates (Lu & Schuldt, 2016).

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However, this extant research on the mediating role of emotion in climate change messaging has only tested the effects of messages about aggregate-level impacts—not personal impact stories about real, relatable individuals— even though the latter likely evoke more emotional engagement. We address this gap with Study 2.
In the radio story, the fisherman recounts the loss of beloved wildlife, stating at one point “there is a sense of loss that I cannot fully describe to you verbally.” Not only is this story likely to evoke feelings of worry about the effects of climate change, but may also evoke feelings of empathy or compassion (Jones & Peterson, 2017).
In turn, there is also evidence that feelings of worry and compassion can influence climate change beliefs and attitudes. Worry about global warming, in particular, is one of the strongest predictors of climate policy support (Goldberg et al., in press; Smith & Leiserowitz, 2014). Additionally, compassion elicited by climate change messages mediated the effects of those messages on support for political action, especially among political moderates and conservatives (Lu & Schuldt, 2016), likely because compassion motivates individuals to aid those who are suffering (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010).
In sum, Study 2 extends the literature by testing whether worry and compassion mediate the effects that this story of personal-level climate impacts has on global warming beliefs and risk perceptions.
Study 2 The purposes of Study 2 were (a) to test the replicability of the observed main effects of Study 1 when sampling from a different population (conservatives and moderates, from TurkPrime Panels instead of MTurk) and using a revised methodology, (b) to address the
StoriesEffectsClimate ChangeWarmingRisk Perceptions