Focused attention on coronavirus is pushing climate change out of our minds

The coronavirus has taken over headlines across the world, with people focused on following the evolution of the pandemic. But while this might seem reasonable, it has also led to a drop in news coverage of environmental issues, which could mean bad news for the planet, according to a new study.

Credit Flickr Anthony Quintano

Humans have a limited capacity for attention to risk, naturally programmed to prioritize one threat at a time, according to previous studies. Instead of thoughtfully calculating how risky something actually is, we tend toward intuitive risk perception, or how threatening something feels in the moment.

Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience from the University of Colorado Boulder, and her team wanted to learn whether slightly directing someone’s attention to environmental threats, even briefly and involuntarily, could increase their emotional response and willingness to take action.

“Simply directing your attention to an environmental risk, even momentarily, can make it seem more frightening and worthy of mitigation,” Van Boven said on a press release.

“On the flip side, if you are not actively paying attention, the risk seems less dangerous and less important to address.”

To do so, the researchers recruited two groups, one with 100 college students and the other one with 100 adult volunteers, selected from a diverse and national sample. They showed images of 12 environmental hazards, including wildfires, polluted rivers, and endangered polar bears.

Van Boven and her team slightly manipulates which image the subjects paid attention to. To do so, they implemented different actions, such as asking the individual to look for a letter on the screen, which they would find on an image of a polluted river, or asking to press the J key when they see a wildfire.

Afterward, the researchers asked the two groups to rate the threats according to their severity and how frightened they were of them. The participants prioritized topics that they had been slightly directed to pay attention to while showing less interest in those that they had been drawn away from.

“What was surprising was how little attention they had to direct toward something for it to begin to seem more severe to them,” said Kellen Mrkva, co-author, in a press release.

“Just a few times for a few seconds was enough to have a significant effect on how big of a threat they perceived it to be.”

Mrkva recently did an analysis of Google Search Trends to see how often people searched for information about the same 12 issues. With media coverage now focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the interest in those issues has steeply declined. She also highlighted a recent poll by Gallup, which showed that concern about climate change is already declining.

But this doesn’t mean there’s no room to pull public attention back to environmental issues, the researchers argued, as even the smallest shift in attention could be enough to reorient people. “You don’t need to be loud or overwhelming, you just have to be persistent,” Van Boven said

The study was published in the journal of Experimental Psychology.

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