The Finite Pool of Worry Hypothesis

“According to Weber’s psychological theory of the finite pool of worry, people avoid dealing with multiple negative events at the same time. Consistent with this theory, as people worry more about the COVID-19 pandemic, they tend to neglect the problem of climate change. Here, we examine the number and content of climate change discussions on Twitter from 2019 through 2021. We show that as COVID-19 cases and deaths increase, climate change tweets have a less negative sentiment. There is also less content associated with fear and anger, the emotions related to worry and anxiety. These results support the finite pool of worry hypothesis and imply that the pandemic redirects public attention from the important problem of climate change mitigation..”

-Oleg Smirnov and Pei-Hsun Hsie, “COVID-19, climate change, and the finite pool of worry in 2019 to 2021 Twitter discussions.” PNAS. October 17, 2022.
119 (43) e2210988119.

This is the first time I have come across the finite pool of worry hypothesis. It strikes me as a subset of the paradox of choice problem. As choices proliferate, the cognitive load of understanding the various tradeoffs in the options gets exponentially more difficult, and we have to find a way to reduce our choices and make a decision.

One way that we reduce our choice is by using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If we are worried about getting our immediate needs met and for our safety, then we will not have much room left over for worrying about climate change and its impact on future generations.

As we move up the hierarchy of needs, then we need to select between things to care about. How does plastic pollution and “forever chemicals” compare to climate change as an existential risk? It’s probably a safe bet that low probability existential risk not effecting people personally will get evaluated differently than something that has the potential to directly impact someone.

For example, the risk of climate change is evaluated differently, over time, depending on whether people think there is some relationship to climate change and the current risks they face. If you think ice caps melting might impact your coastal property in the next two decades, you might think about it differently than people 50 years ago did, when the discussion was of problems in 2100 CE.

Also, anthropogenic climate change is discussed differently than say climate change that happens due to meteorite impact or a supervolcano. Presumably, anthropogenic climate change includes issues of both of culpability and the view that it is under our control. We might not feel the same about the other two, and we may put it outside our sphere of concern.

This concept provides a lot of interesting food for thought.