Heuristics and constructed beliefs in climate change perception: Effect of outdoor temperature, question construction, and cognitive primes
Elke Weber, Eric Johnson, Lisa Zaval, Elizabeth Keenan, Ye Li
Despite a pervasiveness of the issue of climate change, people’s beliefs about it may be malleable; specifically, their beliefs may be constructed in response to questions about climate change. Long-term climate change is a phenomenon not easily detected by personal experience, yet one that invites personal observation and evaluation. Beliefs may reflect irrelevant but salient information, such as the current day’s temperature. This replacement of a more complex, less easily accessed judgment with a simple, more accessible one is known as attribute substitution. Across five studies, we asked residents of the United States to report their opinions about global climate change, and whether the temperature on the day of the study was warmer or cooler than usual. Study 1 also examined whether the effect of perceived temperature on belief persists when the phenomenon is framed as “climate change” instead of “global warming” in the survey question itself.
- Results from Study 1 reveal that the overall effect of perceived temperature deviation on belief in the existence of global climate change remained significant regardless of whether the phenomenon was phrased as “climate change” or “global warming.”
- Global warming may directly focus attention on rising temperatures, which encourages the anecdotal use of unusually cold weather as disconfirming evidence, whereas “climate change” puts the emphasis on the systemic transformation of weather patterns, which accommodate cooler temperatures.
- Lengthy scientific explanations of the lack of association between local temperature and climate prove to be of no avail. When individuals have a choice between concrete, personal experience and scientific, conceptual experience, people tend to rely on the former. By foregoing more analytical, scientific accounts and explanations, simplifying heuristics may lead people to inaccurately evaluate climate change on the basis of more concrete, personal experiences, such as transient temperature. In the case of evaluating climate change, people may rely on the outdoor temperature when constructing their beliefs, rather than considering the scientific reports they have encountered; thus avoiding a complex decision by implicitly selecting a simpler evaluation criterion. Thus, by foregoing more analytical, scientific accounts and explanations, simplifying heuristics may lead people to inaccurately evaluate climate change on the basis of transient temperature.
- The effect of perceived temperature on belief in and concern about global warming is reduced when people are first primed with heat-related cognitions.
- Judgments about climate change are malleable, and can be influenced by irrelevant environmental information.
CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.
This research also received funding from NIA grant 5R01AG027934 and the NSF IGERT grant 0903551.