Can a Warm Room Melt Climate Change Skepticism?

800px-global_warming_failAs Chicago digs out from under two feet of snow and summer feels a million years away, it’s time for the usual jokes doubting the existence of global warming to come from certain quarters of society. It’s apparently a human reflex to start questioning the gradual climb of Earth’s temperatures while shivering knee-deep in snow at the bus stop – even if the intense snowstorms of the current winter may, in fact, be related to climate change. But something about our brains seems designed to prioritize immediate impressions over long-term data and hunches over evidence, a problem that has consistently plagued scientists and policymakers arguing for urgency in the fight against climate change.

But if a run of cold, snowy days predisposes people to doubt global warming, could the opposite influence also be true? The hypothesis that “warmth” could tip people toward believing reports of climate change was recently put to the test by the Booth Business School’s Jane Risen and Clayton Critcher of UC-Berkeley. In a series of experiments, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (pdf), they tested whether people were more likely to agree with statements about global warming when they themselves were in a warm environment, either outside or in an artificially-heated indoor setting.

The concept of humans being easily influenced by their surroundings is not new to psychologists. As much as we like to think we have solid, evidence-based reasons for our beliefs, the literature contains countless examples of people being easily swayed by seemingly minor stimuli. Risen and Critcher cite studies where subjects were more likely to believe a statement based on what color it was printed in, judge people as more hostile after being primed with words related to hostility, and believe a disease is more likely if they are able to imagine its symptoms. To explain this phenomenon, the authors propose a theory of “visceral fit,” where a person is more prone to agree with a proposed state of the world that aligns with their own current personal state.

So, Risen and Critcher had undergraduate volunteers fill out a survey assessing their views in various environments: outside on a hot day vs. a cold day, in a heated cubicle vs. an unheated cubicle, or before and after eating a bowl full of salty pretzels. Subjects were consistently more likely to rate the statement “global warming is a proven fact” over “global warming is a theory that has not yet been proven” as closer to their own views when in a warmer setting – outside, inside, and even when researchers directly pointed out the room’s warmth to subjects. In several experiments, warmth was more strongly correlated with responses than even the self-reported political views of the subjects (and warmth had no effect on perception of other political issues such as gun control and the death penalty). As for the pretzel experiment, think the Seinfeld line “these pretzels are making me thirsty” – subjects were more likely to believe concerns about drought after consuming the salty snacks.

On one hand, the results are a fascinating glimpse at how the human mind can be influenced by its immediate surroundings, even on seemingly complex beliefs. On the other hand, for scientists and science communicators, the results are pretty depressing – all the research and explanation that goes into something like the IPCC reports can be outweighed simply by whether the reader has their heat cranked up or not. Perhaps part of the stubborn resistance of the American public to accept human-driven climate change is due to a simple psychological principle that hard facts often can’t compete with gut instincts.

“Many people do not heed the call of the scientific community, and judgments are influenced by more than careful deliberation,” the authors write in the paper. “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. Oftentimes, factors that facilitate the ability to picture what that future event would look and feel like may exert a strong (if not stronger) effect.”

[Additional coverage from the New York Times and the UChicago Newsroom]

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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