Understanding the Psychological Distance of Climate Change: The Limitations of Construal Level Theory and Suggestions for Alternative Theoretical Perspectives

Abstract

Many perceive climate change to be more relevant to distant places, future times, and other people than to the here and now and oneself. This perception has sparked interest in construal level theory (CLT) as a framework to understand how the public sees climate change, and how the subjective psychological distance at which people mentally represent objects affects their decisions and actions. Although at first CLT may appear to be the ideal lens through which to investigate psychological distance, I argue that applications of the theory in explaining and predicting climate change (in)action are limited. Researchers have sometimes used CLT in ways inconsistent with its original articulation; namely, (1) when claiming that psychological distant events are less personally relevant than close events; (2) when treating psychological distance as a stable individual belief; and (3) when speculating about what happens when such beliefs change. This article identifies places where research diverges from the scope of CLT, and suggests alternative perspectives that are theoretically better suited to investigating some important and common questions. As a constructive plea for theoretically rigorous research projects and practical work, this article outlines directions for future research that should help advance the field’s understanding of psychological distance in the context of climate change and make interventions more effective.

Publication
Global Environmental Change

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