Spatial and Temporal Biases in Assessments of Environmental Conditions in New Zealand

By Milfont, Taciano L.; Abrahamse, Wokje et al. | New Zealand Journal of Psychology, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Spatial and Temporal Biases in Assessments of Environmental Conditions in New Zealand


Milfont, Taciano L., Abrahamse, Wokje, McCarthy, Norma, New Zealand Journal of Psychology


In recent years, awareness about environmental problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and sea level rise has grown considerably. In the scientific community, it is now widely recognised that human behaviour has a substantial impact on these global environmental changes. Various trends are linked to human activity, such as the increase in carbon dioxide emissions, the extinction of certain animal species, and desertification of land areas (IPCC, 2007). For New Zealand, some of the likely impacts of climate change include higher temperatures, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, and increased rainfall (Ministry for the Environment, 2010). Given that many of New Zealand's urban areas and infrastructure are located in coastal areas, changing environmental conditions can have important ramifications for its inhabitants.

Despite the evidence pointing to the importance of human influences on global environmental changes, some uncertainty still exists as to the exact nature and extent of changes in environmental conditions. Situations characterised by a particular degree of uncertainty may be more readily susceptible to misperceptions, or cognitive biases. Cognitive biases tend to influence individuals' judgments and decision-making (Haselton et al., 2009), which interferes with individuals' ability to be impartial or objective. For instance, recognition bias occurs when people base their choice between two alternatives on their level of familiarity with these alternatives (e.g., which city is larger), and hindsight bias occurs when people believe that an event (e.g., a patient's death) is more likely to happen when they assess the probability after the event than when they assess the probability beforehand (for more examples, see Haselton et al., 2009). It has been argued that unrealistic perceptions of environmental conditions may be a barrier for people to change their behaviour in a pro-environmental direction (Gifford et al., 2009; Hatfield & Job, 2001; Pahl, Harris, Todd, & Rutter, 1995). That is, if people believe environmental risks are more likely to happen elsewhere and to other people, they may be less willing to behave in an environmentally friendly way.

A recent cross-national study found that biases in people's perception of environmental conditions do exist, and that they exist for inhabitants of a number of countries (Gifford et al., 2009). The present paper builds on from this recent international study to further explore the nature of optimism biases in relation to environmental conditions by (i) examining whether theses biases also exist in New Zealand (a country not included in the original study), (ii) including a specific climate change question to assess whether these biases are also relevant for this particular environmental problem, and (iii) including optimism and future orientation measures to assess whether individual difference variables affect these biases.

Optimism biases

The concept of optimism concerns people's expectations for the future (Carver, Scheier & Segerstrom, 2010). An optimism bias refers to the belief that, compared to other people, one is more likely to experience positive events and less likely to experience negative events (Harris, 1996). For instance, people generally believe that the chances of having a heart attack or being involved in a car accident are higher for other people than they are for themselves (Weinstein, 1980). Some studies have found that such optimism biases (also referred to as comparative optimism) may apply to environmental risk perception as well. To illustrate, Pahl, Harris, Todd, and Rutter (2005) found that people displayed comparative optimism for a range of environmental risks. Respondents in their study thought that risks like earthquakes, acid rain, and air pollution were more likely to happen to other people than to themselves. Similarly, a study by Hatfield and Job (2001) found that students believed that their own area was less likely to be affected by environmental problems than the local area of their "average" peers. …

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