Climate change is a serious threat to human health and the awareness of this threat can elicit ecological anxiety (eco-anxiety), which could be considered a rational and potentially adaptive response. However, the experience of eco-anxiety does not always lead to adaptive behaviour. The present study investigated whether differential patterns of selective attention towards climate-related information, and variability in this attention, might explain this inconsistent relationship. Participants completed a dot-probe assessment of attentional bias to images of both climate change mitigation strategies and of climate change causes and consequences, and measures of eco-anxiety, climate change belief, environmental self-efficacy, and general psychological symptoms. Engagement in pro-environmental behaviours was measured using a daily behavioural diary. Eco-anxiety and attentional bias independently predicted behaviour, but did not interact. However, attentional bias variability moderated the relationship between eco-anxiety and behaviour, such that higher eco-anxiety predicted greater behavioural engagement, but only when attentional bias variability was low. This was the first known study to examine the potential moderating effect of attentional bias on the relationship between eco-anxiety and pro-environmental behaviours. This growing field of research can help in identifying how the rational response of eco-anxiety can be better harnessed to motivate an adaptive response to the climate crisis.
Climate change has become the most prominent threat to human health in the twenty first century (Costello et al., 2009, Ripple et al., 2020). Whilst the physical implications of climate change have been widely investigated, there remains a scarcity of research into the psychological ramifications (Cianconi et al., 2020, Hayes and Poland, 2018, Rocque et al., 2021). This is problematic as two thirds of people worldwide (Flynn et al., 2021, Patrick et al., 2021) report concerns about climate change. Climate-related concerns appear to be most prevalent amongst individuals under the age of 35 (Searle & Gow, 2010), with the prevalence of climate-related anxiety as high as 80% (ReachOut, 2019). Young people and future generations are disproportionately affected by climate change as they will endure the consequences throughout their lifetime (Burke et al., 2018, Philipsborn and Chan, 2018, Sanson et al., 2019). Therefore, distress and anxiety about the current and future state of the planet is understandably common amongst young people.
Ecological anxiety (eco-anxiety) refers to the experience of heightened feelings of distress relating to ecological crises, including anthropogenic climate change (Pihkala, 2020a). Studies have shown that climate-related distress is associated with symptoms of depression and pathological anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, and obsessive thinking (Jones et al., 2012, Ogunbode et al., 2021, Searle and Gow, 2010, Verplanken et al., 2020). Eco-anxiety is not currently recognised as a clinical disorder. Nevertheless, the American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged the psychological implications of climate change on the human psyche, defining eco-anxiety as the “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017, p. 68). However, some argue that such a narrow conceptualisation of eco-anxiety can lead to the inappropriate pathologizing of a largely rational response (Hickman, 2020, Pihkala, 2020b). Given the genuine threat of climate change and ecological degradation, experiencing fear and worry can be considered a rational and reasonable response (Clayton, 2020, Heeren and Asmundson, 2023, Verplanken and Roy, 2013).
This research was the first known investigation into the potential role of attentional bias in the relationship between eco-anxiety and pro-environmental behaviours. Taken together, our findings suggest that the experience of eco-anxiety in young adults predicts an adaptive behavioural response to climate change particularly when there is low attention dysregulation. This has significant implications for the current understanding of eco-anxiety amongst young adults and its adaptive potential in addressing the issue of climate change. This is not to discount the societal response and more systemic, policy-driven changes needed to address the climate crisis (Mah et al., 2020). However, if greater eco-anxiety is predictive of individual pro-environmental behaviours, then we appear to be faced with a double-edged sword. Whilst eco-anxiety is predictive of pro-environmental behaviours that are helpful for climate change mitigation, it is crucial that the experience of eco-anxiety is manageable and does not develop into a pathological form of anxiety that interferes with an individual’s ability to function.