This piece was written by Tom Jacobs.
How do you get people to understand that
climate change is occurring? The question frustrates scientists and
policymakers, who face a disbelieving public prone to discounting discomforting data.
newly published study suggests one answer is to set aside the charts
and statistics in favor of a more visceral approach. To put it simply:
If you want to convert a skeptic, turn up the thermostat.
Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Clayton Critcher of the University of California, Berkeley, provide evidence that belief
in global warming increases along with the temperature one is currently
experiencing. The researchers attribute this to a phenomenon they call
“We suggest that while experiencing a visceral
state, people will judge future states of the world that fit with that
experience to be more likely,” they write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As
they see it, uncomfortable feelings of warmth stimulate “fluent mental
representations” of heat, which give “an inference of validity” to
arguments the planet is warming.
Risen and Critcher describe seven
studies that support and refine this thesis. In the first, 67 American
university students “were taken outside under the pretense of judging
the height of several campus landmarks,” they write. The exercise
occurred on several days in September and October, when the temperature
ranged from 49 to 89 degrees.
The students filled out
questionnaires in which they voiced their views on several political
topics, including their degree of skepticism regarding climate change.
They also reported their ideological leanings.
“We found that
ambient temperature significantly predicted the belief in the validity
of global warming, with participants reporting greater belief on warmer
days,” Risen and Critcher report. “In fact, the effect of temperature
was as strong as ideology, and was not qualified by it. Thus, outside
temperature influenced liberals and conservatives similarly.”
was this really a visceral response or an intellectual exercise in which
some students (admittedly not exercising sophisticated analytical
skills) felt warm and jumped to the conclusion the planet is heating up?
To find out, the researchers essentially repeated the experiment, but
In the second study, 84 students completed the same
survey while sitting in a small heated cubicle. For half of them, the
cubicle was heated with a space heater for 15 minutes before their
arrival, raising the air temperature from a comfortable 73 degrees to a
toasty 81 degrees.
Those eight degrees made a difference:
“Participants who responded in the heated cubicle believed global
warming was more of a fact than those who responded in the control
cubicle,” the researchers report. Even in an indoor environment, where
the temperature was controlled by humans, “people believed more in
global warming when they were made hot than when they were not.”
people tried to imagine the hot world implied by global warming, these
mental images were simulated more fluently for those who were currently
warm, which led to the inference that this hot world was more likely,”
the researchers conclude. As William James understood a century ago, bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts are inextricably linked.
the researchers don’t mention it, their work appears to reveal a tragic
irony. Thanks to our use of greenhouse gas-emitting energy supplies, we
now spend our summers in air-conditioned buildings and cars, which
makes it harder for us to comprehend, on a visceral level, the reality
of a warming world. Without such a sense, dire scenarios seem
implausible and easy to dismiss.
Breaking this circle will not be
easy, but this research provides scientists and educators valuable clues
as to how it might be done.
“What makes future events feel more
real is not necessarily well-conducted research or impressive
meta-analyses that speak to the event’s likelihood of occurrence,” Risen
and Critcher write, “but factors that facilitate the ability to picture
what the future event would look and feel like.” They add that
facilitating that sort of imaginative leap may be the key to “belief
formation and acceptance.”
So if you find yourself arguing about
climate change with tea partiers, you might want to meet them on their
own terms and offer them some tea.
Serve it piping hot.
article was syndicated with permission from Miller-McCune,
an online and print magazine that focuses on practical options for solving
serious problems, particularly if the options are backed by quality research
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