Diversity Science Meets Sustainability Science

Sustainability challenges like climate change are often characterized as collective action problems, however, beyond partisan influences, we know little about how group dynamics impact how people think about these issues. Work in our lab is currently exploring how identity processes, inequality, and intergroup biases affect how people perceive and respond to environmental problems.

Race and income in the US predict exposure to a wide range of environmental hazards linked to persistent health disparities; yet, racial and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in national environmental nonprofits, federal agencies, and other key decision-making bodies. With collaborators at Cornell and the Environmental Defense Fund, we are currently exploring social psychological factors that may contribute to these disparities, such as pervasive racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes that may fuel misperceptions of who is concerned about the environment and may lead organizations to overlook minority and low-income groups in their advocacy, outreach, and policymaking (see here and here).

Additional studies in our lab have documented differences in how advantaged and disadvantaged groups construe environmental issues, their causes, and solutions. Minority and lower-income groups experience not only a disproportionate exposure to a wide range of environmental hazards, but also social conditions that magnify environmental harms (see Morello-Frosch & Shenassa, 2006). Current studies are exploring social psychological consequences of this “double jeopardy”. In qualitative and quantitative studies, we have found that disadvantaged groups conceptualize environmental issues more broadly than members of advantaged groups to include social conditions, such as racism, poverty, and access to health care, that exacerbate vulnerability. Additional research is exploring implications of these perceptions for both individual health and collective action (for field research with our collaborators using the Cornell Mobile Lab, see here).

In related work with collaborators at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication, we are exploring the implications of these divergent perceptions for the U.S. political divide. Aggregating over a decade of nationally representative survey data, we have found that political polarization around climate change is consistently weaker among communities of color, and lower-income less-educated Whites, and that race and class differences in political polarization are partially driven by differences in perceptions of personal vulnerability to climate change (e.g., Ballew et al., 2020; Ballew et al., 2021, Pearson et al., 2021; Schuldt & Pearson, 2016; Pearson et al., 2017).

Additional studies are exploring how cultural factors may influence how different groups respond to climate change and its impacts. We found have found that familism – a cultural value reflecting a strong commitment to and prioritization of the family – and concerns about cross-generational harm within the family (e.g., to children and grandchildren) are substantially more predictive of U.S Latinos’ climate beliefs and policy support than factors like political ideology or education level (Pearson et al., 2021).

Social Climate Science

As each new round of climate negotiations illustrates, how people perceive and engage with the issue of climate change is powerfully shaped by how others – including ingroups and outgroups – respond to the issue. Research in our lab is currently exploring how group memberships, political polarization, social class, and inequality influence how people respond to climate change, and organizations working to address it.

Climate change remains surprisingly understudied within psychology. An analysis of over 9,000 articles published between 2005 and 2014 in 7 top-tier psychology journals revealed that only 1% of articles mentioned “climate change” or “global warming,” even anecdotally. For instance, current theories of intergroup relations are often silent in addressing how and when group identities and group hierarchies extend beyond national borders and beyond our own species.

We have developed a conceptual framework for understanding how both individual (e.g., cognitive biases) and group-level (intra- and inter-group) processes shape how people perceive and respond to climate change which is guiding new empirical work in this area (Pearson et al., 2016).

Current studies are exploring optimal ways to inform people about the disproportionate risks climate change poses to some populations. Prior social psychological research suggests that information designed to inform people about societal disparities (e.g., in incarceration rates in the United States) can paradoxically fuel support for policies that exacerbate disparities by reinforcing stereotypes. We are currently examining whether messaging that highlights climate-related inequities may have similar unintended social psychological effects, such as exacerbating race and class biases, such as the belief that racial minorities and those in poverty are less sensitive to physical harm (e.g., “thick skin bias”; Cheek & Shafir, 2020), which may exacerbate environmental racism in everyday decision making.

For our perspective on what’s “social” about the problem of climate change, see our article, “Social Climate Science,” and introduction to the special issue, “Climate Change and Intergroup Relations,” our article on the psychology of climate justice in Current Opinion in Psychology, and our forthcoming policy-focused special issue, “Behavioural Climate Policy.”

Dynamics of Intergroup Perception

How accurate are we when we attempt to intuit what members of other groups are thinking and feeling?  In other work, we are interested in understanding how both subtle and overt biases impact communication and impression formation. For instance, with Tessa West and Jack Dovidio, we have found that a mere 1-second delay in conversation can increase anxiety and undermine rapport in intergroup interactions, and that perceiving an outgroup conversation partner as anxious can lead people to avoid intergroup contact even when the anxiety can be attributed to a benign source (e.g., caffeine). In field experiments (here and here), we have explored how superordinate identities can reduce intergroup anxiety and promote the development of cross-group relationships over time.