On Global Warming, Cultural Cognition, and Messaging

by Bill Chameides | February 14th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Do you believe the world is intrinsically just? Do you believe global warming is a threat? How you answer the first may determine how you answer the second.

Recapping Some Cultural Cognition Studies

A year or so ago I wrote about some eye-opening research that found highly polarized views of environmental and health issues could be chalked up to one’s worldview. Law professors Dan Kahan and Donald Braman found that much could be learned by dividing Americans into two basic camps: 1) individualism and hierarchy, and 2) egalitarianism and community. (Details here.)

Americans who subscribe to the former worldview, as I wrote last January, “favor personal initiative and respect for authority” and, according to the research, tend to be suspicious of science that points to “environmental risks because accepting such things would lead to restrictions on personal and economic freedom.” Those whose worldview is framed by egalitarianism “favor goals that benefit community and limit disparities” and the research suggests that this type of American is “typically suspicious of business and industry (perhaps because they lead to an unequal distribution of wealth) and thus tend to believe such societal forces are causing problems and so must be restricted.”

A Just World or Just a World? And How Does Global Warming Figure in?

Now new research into how worldview affects one’s acceptance of matters scientific sounds a similar theme. In “Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs,“ published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, both of the University of California, Berkeley, report on how peoples’ belief that the world is “just” affects their view of global warming. 

How, you might ask, can one figure out if someone else believes in a just world? Apparently, there is a significant body of work on this very question dating at least to the 1970s. In this case the authors used “a political attitudes questionnaire containing a six-item General Belief in a Just World Scale.” I have to say I remain a bit skeptical but I find the results intriguing, so let’s take a look.

The research actually involved two studies. But I’m going to focus on the first because it is based on a larger number of participants and thus, in my opinion, is more credible. In this study, the participants were randomly assigned to read one of two articles on the science of global warming. The articles were the same for the first four paragraphs, but differed in the last two. One ended with dire warnings of global warming; the other closed on readily available solutions to the problem.

The results? Just-world believers tended to be more inclined to react skeptically to global warming science when confronted with a dire message as opposed to a positive message. The authors infer therefore that “information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, and this process ultimately results in decreased willingness to counteract climate change.” And they therefore speculate that: ““If the same messages are delivered coupled with a potential solution, the information can be communicated without creating a substantial threat to deeply held beliefs in a just world.”

So Does Communicating About Climate Solutions Provide … Well, a Solution?

This begs an intriguing question. Currently some 66 percent of Americans remain skeptical that humans play a role in global warming or that it’s even occurring at all. Could the way the message of global warming is delivered change that percentage? Well, it just so happens that a new movie just out may provide the answer.

Carbon Nation, directed by Peter Byck and premiering last week in New York, is a global warming movie with a very different take on the issue. (Full disclosure: One of the producers of Carbon Nation is a member of the Duke Board of Trustees.) Unlike the thrust of, say, An Inconvenient Truth, Carbon Nation emphasizes solutions — real-world examples of how regular people and corporations of all sizes — oh and the U.S. government and military — are already going about the business of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. (Watch trailer below.)

Do you think this movie will make a difference? That may depend on whether you believe in a just world.

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