Environmental Messages Often Off Target
By Maria Konnikova
The winter of 2010 was brutal. In February, three blizzards smashed into the mid-Atlantic in the span of three weeks, burying the region under record amounts of snow. Thousands of people lost power; grocery-store shelves were stripped bare; cars were abandoned on highways; even the federal government shutdown. The first two blizzards, which were Category 3 winter storms, paralyzed cities from Washington, D.C., to New York and became known, collectively, as the Snowmageddon.
Lisa Zaval, a researcher studying perceptions of global warming, told me that she noticed that the storm also had a “strange side effect: an increase in skeptical remarks about global warming.” News reports, she said, expressed disbelief in the phenomenon, while blogs like If Global Warming Is Real Then Why Is It So Cold? began to pop up. “People seemed to be taking the extreme cold weather as evidence against global climate change,” she said.
In the weeks that followed the Snowmageddon, Zaval and her colleagues at Columbia’s Center for Decision Sciences and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions conducted a survey. (I was briefly affiliated with both centers during my graduate work in Columbia’s Department of Psychology.) They asked eleven hundred people from the United States and Australia how they felt about global warming and had them rate—on a scale from zero (not at all convinced/worried) to three (completely convinced/a great deal worried)—how confident they were “that global warming is happening.” They also asked subjects whether they were “personally worried about global warming” and whether the temperature, at that moment, was colder or warmer than usual.
If a participant said that it was chillier than normal, it turned out, her belief in global warming—that is, her conviction that it was happening—weakened, as did her concern about its consequences; if it seemed toastier than usual, her belief and anxiety intensified. Zaval and her colleagues named this effect “local warming.”
To make certain that the cause and effect weren’t flipped—that beliefs in global warming weren’t influencing perceptions of temperature—they switched around the order of the questions and compared the beliefs in global warming to actual, and not just perceived, temperature deviation. The local-warming effect held.
A number of market researchers have since produced similar findings: temperatures that deviate from the norm affect people’s beliefs in climate change. In one study, subjects placed in a heated cubicle believed more acutely in global warming than people placed in non-heated ones.
In a series of more recent studies, Zaval attempted to determine why people’s beliefs about global warming are so susceptible to the weather. After finding that neither the wording of prior surveys—“global warming” versus “climate change”—nor participants’ simple ignorance of the facts was responsible for the earlier results, she settled on a more prosaic explanation: people tend to make decisions based on the information most immediately available to them.
The closer you are to an experience—be it a pain au chocolate you just ate, an article you just read, or the weather outside as you walked to the office—the more that experience colors your beliefs. In a phenomenon known as attribute substitution, we substitute the most immediately available, recent information for more general—and relevant—information when we make a judgment or a decision. In Zaval’s study, for instance, simply asking respondents whether the previous day’s temperature was unusual mitigated the “local warming” effect, because it distanced them from their current experience.
It’s not just proximity that makes a difference. The more extreme an experience is, the more deeply it effects one’s beliefs, so that a polar vortex or a withering heat wave will sway more minds—and be more persuasive—than a light dusting of snow or a particularly balmy afternoon. In one study of New Jersey residents, the Rutgers University psychologist Laurie Rudman and her colleagues found that before hurricanes Irene and Sandy, people were generally turned off by “green” politicians who linked climate change to extreme weather. But, after the storms swept through, their attitudes changed, especially if they had been personally affected by Hurricane Sandy; Irene, the weaker of the two storms, had a much weaker impact.
Unsurprisingly, though, the more rigid a belief is, the less it bends to immediate environmental factors like temperature, as Adam Gopnik recently discussed. If you already think that climate change is a huge deal, you don’t need to lose your house to Hurricane Sandy in order to be convinced; if you think that global warming is a government conspiracy, it will take a pretty spectacular natural disaster to alter your convictions.
Americans’ beliefs about climate change fall along a broad spectrum, argues Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication, who has been studying perceptions of global warming since the late nineteen-nineties. He groups people into six categories. At one end of the spectrum are the “alarmed,” who think that global warming is both urgent and caused by humans. At the other end are the “dismissive,” who don’t believe in the phenomenon or the risks it may pose. These two groups make up roughly twenty-two percent of the population, according to Leiserowitz’s most recent survey data. They are “deeply committed to their views,” he told me, and that makes them much more likely to engage in what’s known as motivated reasoning: when an event conforms to their prior beliefs, they use it as a data point in support of their views; if an event doesn’t, they simply disregard it. In one of Leiserowitz’s studies, for instance, people dismissive of climate change denied that they had experienced a heat wave that had objectively occurred.
Members of the groups in the middle, however—the vast majority of people—are likely to adjust their views on global warming based on irrelevant, subjective factors like the current temperature. These are the “concerned,” who believe that global warming is a threat, but only in the long term; the “cautious,” who follow the debate but are generally uncertain; the “disengaged,” who know little about global warming, apart from its name; and the “doubtful,” who think that climate change is probably not happening and that, even if it is, that humans can do little about it. “The cautious and disengaged in particular,” Leiserowitz said, “are most likely to change their views based on their recent experience of the weather.”
In a recent study, which tracked people’s views on global warming in the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2011, Leiserowitz and a colleague found that people who weren’t strongly engaged with the issue were significantly affected by their personal experiences of the weather, while people more invested in the topic retained their initial beliefs no matter what happened. In other words, they simply interpreted the weather in light of their prior assumptions.
A slight change in presentation, however, may shift attitudes in the direction of climate science and away from the vicissitudes of local weather. A study out this month, from the Cardiff University psychologists Stuart Capstick and Nicholas Pidgeon, found that periods of exceptionally cold weather in the United Kingdom had the opposite effect as they did in the United States: more people believed in the truth of climate change. The reason for the difference? The media had framed the weather within the context of climate change, emphasizing that it was unnatural, rather than simply cold. Perhaps if people here were told that it’s not just brutal out there, it’s unnaturally brutal, they, too, might jump to a different conclusion.
Maria Konnikova is the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.”