Staying over-optimistic about the future: Uncovering attentional biases to climate change messages

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There is considerable concern that the public are not getting the message about climate change. One possible explanation is ‘optimism bias’, where individuals overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening to them and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. Evidence from behavioural neuroscience suggest that this bias is underpinned by selective information processing, specifically through a reduced level of neural coding of undesirable information, and an unconscious tendency for optimists to avoid fixating negative information. Here we test how this bias in attention could relate to the processing of climate change messages. Using eye tracking, we found that level of dispositional optimism affected visual fixations on climate change messages. Optimists spent less time (overall dwell time) attending to any arguments about climate changes (either ‘for’ or ‘against’) with substantially shorter individual fixations on aspects of arguments for climate change, i.e. those that reflect the scientific consensus but are bad news. We also found that when asked to summarise what they had read, non-optimists were more likely to frame their recall in terms of the arguments ‘for’ climate change; optimists were significantly more likely to frame it in terms of a debate between two opposing positions. Those highest in dispositional optimism seemed to have the strongest and most pronounced level of optimism bias when it came to estimating the probability of being personally affected by climate change. We discuss the importance of overcoming this cognitive bias to develop more effective strategies for communicating about climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-64
Number of pages44
Issue number218
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017


  • optimism bias
  • climate change
  • eye tracking
  • dispositional optimism
  • climate change messages
  • message recall


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