Psychology of Climate Denial

There’s one particular personality trait that underpins most of these other correlations: social dominance orientation […]: a measure of an individual’s acceptance of hierarchical power structures and inequality between social groups. Those who score high in surveys measuring social dominance orientation tend to see the world as an ongoing competition between social groups, and think it’s normal that some groups are at the bottom and others are at the top. [….]

The takeaway from all this, Jylha says, is that appealing to a sense of empathy towards victims of climate change — whether that’s other people, animals, or plants — is not an effective tactic with deniers. Instead, research shows, they are more likely to respond to arguments of how society at large can benefit from climate change mitigation efforts.

A comprehensive study published in 2015 in Nature surveyed 6,000 people across 24 countries and found that emphasizing the shared benefits of climate change was an effective way of motivating people to take action — even if they initially identified as deniers. For example, people were more likely to take steps to mitigate climate change if they believe that it will produce economic and scientific development. Most importantly, these results were true across political ideology, age, and gender.

In order to appeal to those who deny climate change, discussions should focus on convincing people to take on behaviors that would help protect the environment — without trying to convince them to become environmentalists. The renewable energy economy is a great example. Arguing that innovation in alternate energy sources would lead to the creation of jobs does not necessarily require convincing someone of the harmful impact of climate change.

Hearing about the tactics used by climate deniers can ‘inoculate’ people against misinformation, the researchers found.

Among study participants who were given a general warning that “some politically motivated groups use misleading tactics to try to convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists,” the overall perception of scientific agreement on climate change went up by about 6.5 percentage points at the end of the experiment.

Among those who also got a more specific message pointing out the problems with the [anti-AGW] petition (the signatories include obviously false names like Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and fewer than 1 percent have a background in atmospheric or climate science), the estimate of scientific agreement went up by nearly 13 points.

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end — winning our “case” — and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

That’s a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I don’t want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else — everybody who isn’t too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. That’s not to suggest that we aren’t also motivated to perceive the world accurately — we are. Or that we never change our minds — we do. It’s just that we have other important goals besides accuracy — including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self — and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses — what that great 17th century theorist of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, dubbed the “idols of the mind.” Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.

Our individual responses to the conclusions that science reaches, however, are quite another matter. Ironically, in part because researchers employ so much nuance and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading and misinterpretation. Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.

Sure enough, a large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs.

[…] The question then becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature itself? One thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

[…] Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values — so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store