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Effects of psychological distance on assessment of severity of water pollution.

Water pollution, which is the result of discharge of a large quantity of untreated wastewater, has decreased the efficiency of water sources and reduced the quantity of water able to be used for certain purposes (Lu, Xie, Zhou, Zhang, & Liu, 2008). Unfortunately, despite facing the deterioration of water resources, many people do not behave in a way that will ensure that there will continue to be a supply sufficient to sustain life on our planet. This behavior may be partly as a result of water pollution being perceived as psychologically distant (Spence, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2012). People's perception of water pollution is subject to high levels of uncertainty and delay, and may be seen as a consequence borne by others (Gattig & Hendrickx, 2007). Also, the effects of water pollution cannot be accurately forecast and may occur years or even decades later. However, the consequences of water contamination are extensive and can impact on people over a large area (Lu et al., 2008). These characteristics may result in psychological distance, namely probability, temporal, and social distances, which in turn leads individuals to underestimate the severity of water resource deterioration (Hendrickx & Nicolaij, 2004). If individuals or groups do not regard water pollution as a serious issue, they will not be motivated to act sustainably (Gifford, 2011).

Although the role of psychological distance has been discussed in the financial area, few researchers have paid attention to psychological distance issues in the environmental field (Gattig & Hendrickx, 2007). Spence et al., (2012) found that less psychological distance brought about more concern about environmental problems and more proenvironmental behavior than did greater psychological distance. However, they explored the effect of only one dimension of psychological distance. In fact, water pollution seems to involve several dimensions of psychological distance, which function differently in individuals' perception and evaluation (Jones & Rachlin, 2009; Keren & Roelofsma, 1995). A better understanding of the multidimensional characteristics of water pollution can be gained by examining the impact of these dimensions as an example of the perception of environmental problems. This knowledge will provide guidance when the problem is discussed in the media, thus resulting in environmentally friendly behavior. In this context, our aim in the present study was to investigate the effects of three dimensions of psychological distance on individuals' assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution.

Psychological Distance and Construal Level Theory

In the construal level theory (CLT; Liberman & Trope, 2008), temporal, spatial, probability, and social are specified as the four dimensions of psychological distance. The reference point of psychological distance is the self in the here and now, so that an event is psychologically distant when it is not part of one's direct experience here, now, and for sure. The greater the temporal, spatial, probability, or social distance from an event, the more psychologically distant it appears to be (Liberman & Trope, 1998; Liberman & Trope, 2008). Gattig and Hendrickx (2007) stated that environmental deterioration is perceived to be distant in each of these dimensions. Therefore, it is useful to apply CLT to the manipulation of perceived distance to promote sustainable behavior.

According to CLT, psychologically distant and close stimuli are represented in similar mental space. Therefore, each dimension of psychological distance could be psychologically additive in the way it influences preference and choices (Liberman & Trope, 1998). Introducing uncertainty to intertemporal choice could decrease the degree of undervaluing future financial rewards, as well as adding time delay. Introducing time delay to a risky choice could reduce the degree of underestimating risky financial rewards, as well as lowering its probability (Ahlbrecht & Weber, 1997; Weber & Chapman, 2005). Also, the increase of temporal distance from a stimulus may make it seem more socially distant (Pronin, Olivola, & Kennedy, 2008). Although these results support the idea that the dimensions of psychological distance are interrelated, they were reported in studies conducted in the financial field. It is therefore necessary to verify these findings in an environmental background.

The Psychological Distance of Water Pollution

The role of spatial distance in water pollution can, to a large extent, be contained by social distance. This is especially so for Chinese people, who attach importance to relationships and interpersonal contact (Wong, 2007). In terms of people being affected by water pollution, the perception of being in the affected group extends beyond the area in which the water is actually polluted. Thus, in our study we have used social distance to reflect water pollution happening to different people in different places.

There may be different influences exerted by probability, temporal, and social distance on the severity assessment of water pollution. For example, results in several studies show that the undervaluation of environmental consequences caused by temporal distance was much less than the undervaluation of financial outcomes and a significant number of people did not underestimate environmental outcomes when temporal distance increased (Bohm & Pfister, 2005; Hendrickx & Nicolaij, 2004; Svenson & Karlsson, 1989). In a study by Jones and Rachlin (2009), social and probability discounting were found to be significantly correlated with a public good contribution but delay discounting was not significantly correlated with a public good contribution. Thus, we inferred that although temporal distance may not have a significant influence on the severity assessment of water pollution, probability and social distance do have a significant influence. Therefore, we proposed the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: The assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution will not decrease significantly when temporal distance increases.

Hypothesis 2: The assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution will decrease significantly when probability distance increases.

Hypothesis 3: The assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution will decrease significantly when social distance increases.

Hypothesis 4: When temporal and social distance coexist, the assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution will not decrease significantly when temporal distance increases, but it will decrease significantly when social distance increases.

It has been demonstrated in experimental research on resource dilemmas that perceived or real uncertainty reduces the frequency of proenvironmental behavior (Hine & Gifford, 1996). Uncertainty about climate change acts as a justification for climate change inaction (Gifford, 2011). The most frequently studied feature of environmental issues is high uncertainty (Weber & Chapman, 2005). Individuals tend to interpret any sign of uncertainty, for example, the rate at which the resource regenerates or the probability of a nuclear leakage, as a sufficient reason for favoring self-interest rather than that of the environment. Therefore, probability may be the most influential of the three dimensions of psychological distance in the severity assessment of water pollution. Therefore, we proposed the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 5: When temporal and probability distance coexist, the assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution will not decrease significantly when temporal distance increases, but it will decrease significantly when probability distance increases.

Hypothesis 6: When social and probability distance coexist, the assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution will not decrease significantly when social distance increases, but it will decrease significantly when probability distance increases.

Hypothesis 7: When the three psychological distances coexist, the assessment of the degree of severity of water pollution will decrease significantly when probability distance increases, but it will not decrease significantly when both social and temporal distance increase.

Study 1

The goal in Study 1 was to explore whether or not the existence of probability, temporal, or social distance, respectively, would lead to undervaluing the severity assessment of water pollution.

Method

Participants. Participants were 132 undergraduate and graduate students (69 women) who were majoring in biology, psychology, and management at Zhejiang University in China. Their ages ranged from 18 to 32 years (M = 22.5, SD = 1.32).

Procedure. Each participant completed a survey form, which contained 18 descriptions of different water pollution situations. Nine situations dealt with 12,000 tons of water pollution, and nine with 20,000,000 tons. There were 12 different versions of the text of the survey form, in which the stimuli were combined in a balanced order. Distance variables were manipulated by providing different scenario information, each with three levels:

(a) Temporal distance: right now, three years later, and 10 years later.

(b) Social distance: themselves, residents in a remote area in China, and residents on Cocconi Island, a fictitious place in the Southern Hemisphere. (Although the participants would not have known anyone in a remote area in China, they would have some commonality with people living there).

(c) Probability distance: 100%, 65%, and 5%.

Participants were asked to make a severity assessment of water pollution in the three scenarios on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (not severe at all) to 7 (extremely severe). Sample items included: "There will be 20,000,000 tons of water pollution 10 years later," (a large amount of pollution in a temporal distance situation) and "There will be 12,000 tons of water pollution with a 65% possibility," (a small amount of pollution in a probability distance situation). The participants also read in the instructions that the national urban daily water consumption standard is 0.12 ton for each person every day and one person needs 44 tons of water per year for daily living needs.

Results

Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations for all variables. These data were submitted to a 2 (pollution amount: 12,000 tons vs. 20,000,000 tons) x 3 (distance type: temporal vs. probability vs. social) x 3 (distance level: near vs. medium vs. far) within participants analysis of variance (ANOVA) with severity assessment as a dependent variable. It was found that the main effects of how much water was polluted (quantity), F(1, 2358) = 49.95, p < .001 and distance type, F(2, 2358) = 38.71, p < .001 were significant and the interaction of distance type and level, F(4, 2358) = 6.64, p < .001 was also significant. The results of post hoc analysis indicated that the severity assessment of 12,000 tons (small quantity) of water pollution (M = 4.59, SD = 1.42) was lower than that of 20,000,000 tons (large quantity) (M = 5.12, SD = 1.35). The severity assessment of water pollution with probability distance (M = 4.67, SD = 1.92) was lower than that with social distance (M = 4.93, SD = 1.35) and temporal distance (M = 4.88, SD = 1.65). It was also found that there was no significant difference between the disparate temporal distance severity assessments, and the scores decreased as probability and social distance increased, F(2, 789) = 5.81, p < .01, and F(2, 789) = 8.02, p < .001, respectively. Thus, Hypotheses 1, 2, and 3 were supported.

Study 2

Different dimensions of psychological distance usually coexist in real life situations. The goal in Study 2 was to explore whether or not the coexistence of probability, temporal, and social distance would lead to undervaluing the severity assessment of water pollution.

Method

Participants. Participants were 146 undergraduate and graduate students (76 women), who were majoring in communication and management at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in China. Their ages ranged from 18 to 27 years (M = 21.5, SD = 1.05).

Procedure. Each participant completed a survey form, which contained 20 descriptions of different water pollution situations. Half of the participants dealt with 12,000 tons of water pollution, and half with 20,000,000 tons. The pollution amount was a between-participants variable. There were six different versions of the text of the survey form, in which the stimuli were combined in a balanced order. Distance variables were manipulated by providing different scenario information:

(a) 2 (social distance: residents in a remote area in China vs. residents on Cocconi Island) x 2 (temporal distance: three years later vs. 10 years later).

(b) 2 (temporal distance: three years later vs. 10 years later) x 2 (probability distance: 65% possibility vs. 5% possibility).

(c) 2 (probability distance: 65% possibility vs. 5% possibility) x 2 (social distance: residents in a remote area in China vs. residents on Cocconi Island).

(d) 2 (probability distance: 65% possibility vs. 5% possibility) x 2 (social distance: residents in a remote area in China vs. residents on Cocconi Island) x 2 (temporal distance: three years later vs. 10 years later).

Participants were asked to make a severity assessment of water pollution in the four scenarios on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (not severe at all) to 7 (extremely severe). Sample items included: "There will be 12,000 tons of water pollution 10 years later with a 65% possibility," (temporal distance associated with a probability distance situation) and "There will be 20,000,000 tons of water pollution with a 5% possibility in a remote area in China," (probability distance associated with a social distance situation).

Results

In the first scenario, the data were submitted to a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) with severity assessment as a dependent variable. It was found that the main effect of amount was significant, F(1, 1160) = 21.88, p < .001, and the interaction between temporal and social distance was also significant, F(1, 1160) = 7.31, p < .01. It was also shown that there were no significant differences between the temporal distance severity assessments, F(1, 1160) = 0.23, p = .629. When the temporal distance was three years, the severity assessment of water pollution happening for Chinese people (M = 4.92, SD = 1.32) was higher than that for Cocconi Island residents (M = 4.73, SD = 1.46). However, when the temporal distance was up to 10 years, the difference was not significant. Thus, Hypothesis 4 was not supported.

The data of the second scenario were submitted to a MANOVA. It was found that the main effects of amount, F(1, 1160) = 33.57, p < .001, and probability distance, F(1, 1160) = 31.25, p < .001, were significant. It was also found that there were no significant differences between the disparate temporal distance severity assessments, F(1, 1160) = 0.19, p = .662, and the scores decreased as probability distance increased (M 65% = 4.76, SD = 1.37; M 5% = 4.41, SD = 1.34).

The data of the third scenario were submitted to a MANOVA. It was found that the main effects of amount, F(1, 1160) = 12.36 p < .001, and probability distance, F(1, 1160) = 6.78,p < .01, were significant. It was also shown that there were no significant differences between the disparate temporal distance severity assessments, F(1, 1160) = 0.16, p = .896, and the scores decreased as probability distance increased (M 65% = 4.66, SD = 1.43; M 5% = 4.43, SD = 1.38).

The data of the last scenario were submitted to a MANOVA. It was found that the main effects of amount, F(1, 2320) = 31.22, p < .001, and probability distance, F(1, 2320) = 15.78, p < .001, were significant but those of temporal distance, F(1, 2320) = 0.98, p = .322, and social distance, F(1, 2320) = 0.83, p = .362, were not significant. The severity assessment decreased as probability distance increased (M 65% = 4.60, SD = 1.43; M 5% = 4.42, SD = 1.38). Thus, Hypotheses 5, 6, and 7 were supported.

Discussion

We conducted two studies to examine the effect on the assessment of severity of water pollution of three psychological distance dimensions of probability distance, temporal distance, and social distance. We used one dimension and three dimensions, respectively. We found that assessment of the severity of water pollution was not influenced by temporal distance, but decreased when probability and social distance increased. When social and temporal distance coexisted, their interaction on assessment of severity was significant. In addition, when the three dimensions coexisted, the impact of probability distance was significant, but the impact of both social and temporal distance was not.

Our results have contributed to the literature by corroborating and extending prior findings in several ways. Combining the dimensions of psychological distance advances understanding of how people assess the severity of water pollution, and even of environmental outcomes. To our knowledge, few researchers have developed an integrative model, and we are the first to present a complex scenario. The results are in line with those of earlier studies in which the increase of probability and social distance brought about the undervaluing of environmental outcomes (Rachlin & Jones, 2008), but the effect of temporal distance on the value placed on environmental outcomes was not so pronounced (Bohm & Pfister, 2005; Jones & Rachlin, 2009). Rachlin and Jones (2008) found that the subjective value at one point of extreme social distance was not perceived to be different from that of a longer social distance, which could explain the interaction between social and temporal distance. When these two distances coexisted, temporal distance was taken as a subordinate part of social distance. The difference between assessments of the severity of water pollution happening to people in different locations was significant after three years but not after 10 years. This result demonstrated that social distance was more influential than temporal distance. When the three dimensions coexisted, only the impact of probability distance was significant. Furthermore, we found that the uncertainty characteristic of water pollution may partly explain why people discount its severity in making an assessment and are reluctant to behave proenvironmentally.

The fact that probability distance plays a predominant role in the severity assessment of water pollution has important implications for communication. When governments, media, and social organizations encourage people to protect the environment, they should emphasize the possible consequences. Therefore, communicating this information precisely, authentically, and transparently is crucial for the promotion of proenvironmental behavior.

Spence et al., (2012) found that less psychological distance was associated with greater concern about environmental issues and an increase in intention to protect the environment. Therefore, endeavors to decrease the psychological distance of water pollution are worthwhile. According to CLT, construal levels may affect perceived distance (Liberman & Trope, 1998). High-level construals involve constructing abstract conceptualizations of information about objects and events and are more coherent and integrative, whereas low-level construals are more detailed, and include subordinate and incidental features of events (Liberman & Trope, 2008). Construing an object at a lower level brings to mind more proximal times, places, and people than does construal at a higher level. Therefore, communicating the grave consequences of water pollution in a concrete, vivid, and detailed way, especially the certainty of contamination and how seriously public health will be impaired, may initiate improved proenvironmental behavior.

The findings should be tested in other environmental situations and in a cross-cultural background. Whether or not the effects of the three dimensions of psychological distance are valid for other environmental issues is worth exploring. The attitude to, and perception of, risk and social distance are different across cultures. For example, in the finance domain, there are systematic cross-cultural differences in risk preference between Americans and Chinese (Weber & Hsee, 1999). Also, people's attitude toward others who are at a great social distance is different in individualistic and collectivistic cultures (Oyserman & Lee, 2008). Therefore, the role of the different dimensions of psychological distance in the assessment of the severity of water pollution should be studied in other cultures.

http://dx.doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2014.42.1.69

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Wei Zhang and Gui-Bing HeZhejiang University

Yue Zhu

Zhejiang Gongshang University

Long Cheng

Post-Doctoral Research Center, China Merchants-Bank, Shenzhen, People's Republic of China

Wei Zhang, Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Zhejiang University and Department of Psychology, Shenzhen University; Gui-Bing He, Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Zhejiang University; Yue Zhu, Human Resource and Organization Management Department, Zhejiang Gongshang University; Long Cheng, Post-Doctoral Research Center, China Merchants-Bank, Shenzhen, People's Republic of China.

This research was supported by the Chinese National Scientific Foundation (71271189). Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Gui-Bing He, Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Xixi Campus, Zhejiang University, 148 Tianmushan Road, Hangzhou 310028, People's Republic of China. Email: gbhe@zju.edu.cn
Table 1. Means and Standard Deviations for the Variables

Amount        [S.sub.now]   [S.sub.3yr]   [S.sub.10yr]   [S.sub.100%]

Small    M       4.68          4.65           4.67           4.71
         SD      1.60          1.61           1.37           1.56
Large    M       5.11          5.09           5.14           5.16
         SD      1.45          1.47           1.42           1.66

Amount   [S.sub.65%]   [S.sub.5%]   [S.sub.local]

Small       4.54          4.24          4.81
            1.31          1.15          1.51
Large       4.97          4.66          5.25
            1.60          1.52          1.45

Amount   [S.sub.remote China]   [S.sub.Cocconi]

Small            4.63                4.37
                 1.52                1.45
Large            5.16                5.09
                 1.48                1.42

Note. S represents the severity assessment score in each scenario.
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Author:Zhang, Wei; He, Gui-Bing; Zhu, Yue; Cheng, Long
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Feb 1, 2014
Words:3941
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