Alarmed but unmoved:

How people respond to information about local environmental risk

Information about local environmental risk, such as a neighborhood’s air quality data, generally is more accessible than it once was. And businesses have increasingly been required to disclose information about their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance, so people know more about the companies that they buy products from and that pollute local waterways. Embodying the widely shared democratic values of transparency and participation, ESG disclosure promises to use information to leverage the power of consumers, investors, nongovernmental organizations, the media and the general public to press businesses to improve their ESG performance. The virtues of information disclosure rest, in part, on the assumption that people will respond to the information disclosed and use it to make better choices.

But this assumption may not always be correct. People may suffer from confirmation bias when they tend to accept new information that reinforces their existing views and reject new information that contradicts those views. People also may fail to connect new information with specific policy preferences and behaviors. For example, if someone learns that pollution in their neighborhood is severe, they may not draw the connection to lack of government action because they view government interventions as wasteful and inefficient.

A recent study published in Political Behavior by Zhengyan Li, a postdoc at the Erb Institute, examines this assumption. Through a survey experiment, he investigated citizens’ responses to the provision of correct information about local environmental risk from industrial pollution. He found that, for people who had underestimated the risk before being given the new information, the information provided made them more concerned about the risk to themselves and their family, and they developed a stronger sense of personal obligation to act. He found the opposite for people who had overestimated the risk: After learning the new information about risk, they were less concerned. 

For example, someone may believe that the environmental risk in their zip code is smaller than 70% of all zip codes in the United States, when it is actually smaller than only 30%—a common degree of underestimation. In this situation, the new information correcting the person’s previous understanding led them to increase their concern for self and family.

These reactions showed how giving people information on risk affected their level of concern and their attitude—on an individual level. However, the study found that providing this information had no effect on people’s concern for the country or their attitude that government should do more. Nor did it affect people’s policy preferences or their intentions to change consumption behaviors, participate in groups or take political action. While personal concern may encourage behaviors to avoid or adapt to adverse conditions (such as moving away, installing air purifiers or drinking bottled water), responses in the public sphere (such as complaints, citizen suits, petitions, and voting) are necessary to address the underlying environmental problems.

These findings attest to the potential of environmental information disclosure, because they show that people can correctly process new information to update their beliefs and attitudes, but they also highlight the challenges of using information on risk to spur meaningful participatory and behavioral changes. Many reasons could potentially explain the muted impact of environmental information on preferences and behavioral intentions. For instance, dry and statistical information may have been unable to appeal to emotion to motivate action. People may fail to automatically connect new information and their concerns with specific policy proposals. People may also lack the resources (both psychological ones, such as political trust and political efficacy, and material ones, such as money and time) to act on disclosed information. As information disclosure becomes increasingly common, future research needs to further explore these and other possible explanations for the “unmoved” part of the story. And when we design information disclosure programs and decide how to use information, we must consider these factors and what we can do to unleash the full potential of information disclosure.