Article on the First Experimental Test of the Effects of Reading Climate Fiction

In September, the journal Environmental Communication published “Environmental Literature as Persuasion: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Reading Climate Fiction.” Written by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (Yale-NUS College), Abel Gustafson (University of Cincinnati), Anthony Leiserowitz (Yale University), Matthew H. Goldberg (Yale University), Seth A. Rosenthal (Yale University) and Matthew Ballew (Chapman University), the article reports on the results of the first experimental test of the effects of reading climate fiction.

The researchers conducted a controlled experiment to measure the influence of two very different climate-focused short stories—“The Tamarisk Hunter,” a speculative dystopic story by Paolo Bacigalupi, and “In-Flight Entertainment,” a realist story by Helen Simpson—on the climate change attitudes and beliefs of Americans who are in the “Concerned” and “Cautious” categories of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s Global Warming’s Six Americas. They found that reading either “The Tamarisk Hunter” or “In-Flight Entertainment” had significant positive effects on readers’ climate change beliefs and attitudes, including the belief that global warming will cause more natural disasters and poverty, as well as levels of worry, perceived importance, and the perception that global warming will harm readers personally, and will harm future generations. Consistent with prior research on narrative persuasion, they found that many of these effects are mediated by feelings of transportation into the story and identification with the characters. 

After one month, they recontacted the study’s participants in order to assess whether these persuasive effects would remain over time. They found that the effect of reading these stories was no longer statistically significant, suggesting that the persuasive effects had faded. However, they note that we should probably expect longer narratives, such as novels, to have more significant and longer-lasting effects than a short story. And they highlight the importance of repeated exposure to multiple messages from different sources to make a message ‘stick,’ because the persuasive effects of any one message are generally transient.

The article notes that this study has a number of practical implications. First, it highlights the effects that the growing genre of environmental literature is likely having on the beliefs and attitudes of its readers. Further, educators, researchers, publishers, and activists seeking persuasive climate change communication content should note the growing body of research indicating the effectiveness of narratives and storytelling, and of climate fiction specifically. There are many existing works of climate fiction that could be used in diverse media and contexts. This study also finds that the effects of these stories are often explained (at least in part) by felt transportation into the story and sometimes by felt identification with the characters. Thus, a practical recommendation for strategic communicators is to seek to maximize these two experiences when making decisions about message format, style, and content.

If you don’t have access to Environmental Communication, you can email the lead author for a copy of the article.