Extreme weather event coverage may lead people to think more seriously about climate change, according to new surveys of New Jersey college students which found that shortly after Hurricane Irene and "Super Storm" Sandy, they were more likely to show support for a politician running on a "green" platform and expressed a greater belief that climate change is caused by human activity.

The results suggest that weather events may have the power to shift the general population's automatic attitudes — their first instincts — in favor of greater government involvement in environmental policies. Though climate scientists are in near-unison that human activity contributes to climate change, the relationship isn't as clear to politicians and citizens, which translates into lackluster support for environmental policies, especially when the short-term consequences amount to higher taxes.

In 2010,  lead author Laurie Rudman of Rutgers University and colleagues Meghan McLean and Martin Bunzl surveyed over 250 Rutgers undergraduate students, measuring their attitudes toward two politicians, one who favored and another who opposed environmental policies that involve tax increases. The researchers asked the college students whether they believed that humans are causing climate change, and they also had the students complete a test intended to reveal their automatic, instinctual preferences toward the politicians.

Though most undergraduate students said they preferred the green politician, their automatic preferences suggested otherwise. The automatic-attitudes test indicated that the students tended to prefer the politician who did not want to raise taxes to fund environment-friendly policy initiatives.

After Hurricane Irene hit the Eastern seaboard in 2011 and Tropical Storm Sandy in 2012, Rudman and colleagues wondered whether they would see any differences in students' attitudes toward environmental policies. "It seemed likely that what was needed was a change of 'heart'. Direct, emotional experiences are effective for that."

In contrast with the first group, students tested in 2012 showed a clear preference for the green politician, even on the automatic attitudes test. And those students who were particularly affected by Hurricane Sandy – experiencing power outages, school disruptions, even damaged or destroyed homes – showed the strongest preference for the green politician.

"Not only was extreme weather persuasive at the automatic level, people were more likely to base their decisions on their gut-feelings in the aftermath of Sandy, compared to before the storm," Rudman explains.

While they don't know whether the first group of students would have shown a shift in attitudes after the storms, the researchers believe their findings provide evidence that personal experience is one factor that can influence instinctive attitudes toward environmental policy. If storms do become more prevalent and violent as the climate changes, they argue, more people may demand substantive policy changes.

"Our hope is that researchers will design persuasion strategies that effectively change people's implicit attitudes without them having to suffer through a disaster," Rudman concludes.

Upcoming in Psychological Science.