Climatic Change

, Volume 114, Issue 3–4, pp 463–478 | Cite as

Uncertainty, scepticism and attitudes towards climate change: biased assimilation and attitude polarisation

  • Adam CornerEmail author
  • Lorraine Whitmarsh
  • Dimitrios Xenias


‘Scepticism’ in public attitudes towards climate change is seen as a significant barrier to public engagement. In an experimental study, we measured participants’ scepticism about climate change before and after reading two newspaper editorials that made opposing claims about the reality and seriousness of climate change (designed to generate uncertainty). A well-established social psychological finding is that people with opposing attitudes often assimilate evidence in a way that is biased towards their existing attitudinal position, which may lead to attitude polarisation. We found that people who were less sceptical about climate change evaluated the convincingness and reliability of the editorials in a markedly different way to people who were more sceptical about climate change, demonstrating biased assimilation of the information. In both groups, attitudes towards climate change became significantly more sceptical after reading the editorials, but we observed no evidence of attitude polarisation—that is, the attitudes of these two groups did not diverge. The results are the first application of the well-established assimilation and polarisation paradigm to attitudes about climate change, with important implications for anticipating how uncertainty—in the form of conflicting information—may impact on public engagement with climate change.


Climate Change Public Engagement Attitude Polarisation Newspaper Editorial Prior Attitude 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Supplementary material

10584_2012_424_MOESM1_ESM.docx (57 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 56 kb)


  1. Antilla L (2005) Climate of scepticism: U.S. newspaper coverage of the science of climate change. Global Environ Change, Part A: Hum Policy Dimens 15(4):338–352CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bord RJ, O’Connor RE, Fisher A (2000) In what sense does the public need to understand global climate change? Public Underst Sci 9:205–218CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Boykoff M (2007) Flogging a dead norm? Media coverage of anthropogenic climate change in United States and United Kingdom, 2003–2006. Area 39(4):470–481CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. British Broadcasting Corporation (2010) BBC climate change poll—February 2010. Available from
  5. Budescu DV, Broomell S, Por H (2009) Improving communication of uncertainty in the reports of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Psychol Sci 20:299–308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Butler C, Pidgeon N (2009) Media communications and public understanding of change—reporting scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. In: Boyce T, Lewis J (eds) Climate change and the media. Peter Lang, New York, pp 43–58Google Scholar
  7. Carvalho A, Burgess J (2005) Cultural circuits of climate change in U.K. broadsheet newspapers, 1985–2003. Risk Anal 25(6):1457–1469CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Corbett JB, Durfee JL (2004) Testing public (Un) certainty of science: media representations of global warming. Sci Commun 26:129–151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Corner A, Hahn U (2009) Evaluating scientific arguments: evidence, uncertainty & argument strength. J Exp Psychol Appl 15(3):199–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Corner A, Harris AJ, Hahn U (2009) Conservatism in belief revision: source reliability and experimental pragmatics. Paper presented at the European Conference for Cognitive Science, Venice, ItalyGoogle Scholar
  11. DEFRA (2007) Survey of public attitudes and behaviours toward the environment: 2007. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, LondonGoogle Scholar
  12. Doran PT, Zimmerman MK (2009) Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. EOS, Trans Am Geophys Union 90(3):22–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dunlap RE, Grieneeks JK, Rokeach M (1983) Human values and pro-environmental behaviour. In: Conn WD (ed) Energy and material resources: attitudes, values, and public policy. Westview, Boulder, COGoogle Scholar
  14. Dunlap RE, van Liere KD, Mertig AG, Jones RE (2000) Measuring endorsement of the new ecological paradigm: a revised NEP scale. J Soc Issues 56(3):425–442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Frewer L, Hunt S, Brennan M, Kuznesof S, Ness M, Ritson C (2003) The views of scientific experts on how the public conceptualize uncertainty. J Risk Res 6(1):75–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gallup (2009) Increased number think global warming is “Exaggerated”.
  17. Hahn U, Harris AJ, Corner A (2009) Argument content and argument source: an exploration. Informal Logic 29(4):337–367Google Scholar
  18. Harris AJ, Corner A (2011) Communicating environmental risks: clarifying the severity effect in interpretations of verbal probability expressions. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 37:1571–1578Google Scholar
  19. Hulme M (2009) Why we disagree about climate change: understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  20. Kahan D, Braman D, Jenkins-Smith H (2010) Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 77Google Scholar
  21. Kuhn D, Lao J (1996) Effects of evidence on attitudes: is polarization the norm? Psychol Sci 7(2):115–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kruglanski AW, Webster DM, Klem A (1993) Motivated resistance and openness to persuasion in the presence or absence of prior information. J Pers Soc Psychol 65(5):861–876CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lord CG, Ross L, Lepper MR (1979) Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: the effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. J Pers Soc Psychol 37(11):2098–2109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lorenzoni I, Nicholson-Cole S, Whitmarsh L (2007) Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Glob Environ Chang 17:445–459CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lorenzoni I, Pidgeon NF, O’Connor RE (2005) Dangerous climate change: the role for risk research. Risk Anal 25(6):1287–1398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Maio GR, Haddock GG (2010) The psychology of attitudes and attitude change. Sage, LondonGoogle Scholar
  27. McCright AM, Shwom R (2010) Newspaper and television coverage. In: Schneider SH, Rosencranz A, Mastrandrea MD, Kuntz-Duriseti K (eds) Climate change science and policy. Island Press, Washington, D.CGoogle Scholar
  28. Miller AG, McHoskey JW, Bane CM, Dowd TG (1993) The attitude polarization phenomenon: role of response measure, attitude extremity, and behavioural consequences of reported attitude change. J Pers Soc Psychol 64(4):561–574CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Morton TA, Rabinovich A, Marshall D, Bretschneider P (2010) The future that may (or may not) come: how framing changes response to uncertainty in climate change communication. Glob Environ Chang 21(1):103–109Google Scholar
  30. Munro GD, Ditto PH (1997) Biased assimilation, attitude polarization, and affect in reactions to stereotype-relevant scientific information. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 23(6):636–653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Nilsson A, von Borgstede C, Biel A (2004) Willingness to accept climate change strategies: the effect of values and norms. J Environ Psychol 24:267–277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Oppenheimer M (2005) Defining dangerous anthropogenic interference: the role of science, the limits of science. Risk Anal 25(6):1399–1407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Patt A (2007) Assessing model-based and conflict-based uncertainty. Glob Environ Chang 17:37–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Patt A, Dessai S (2005) Communicating uncertainty: lessons learned and suggestions for climate change assessment. Cr Geosci 337(4):425–441CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Patt AG, Schrag DP (2003) Using specific language to describe risk and probability. Clim Chang 61:17–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Petty RE, Cacioppo JT (1984) The effects of involvement on responses to argument quantity and quality: central and peripheral routes to persuasion. J Pers Soc Psychol 46(1):69–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press (2009) Fewer Americans see solid evidence of global warming. Available from
  38. Pidgeon N, Fischhoff B (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nat Clim Change 1(1):35–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Plous S (1991) Biases in the assimilation of technological breakdowns: do accidents make us safer? J Appl Soc Psychol 21(13):1058–1082CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Pollack HN (2005) Uncertain science.. . uncertain world. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  41. Poortinga W, Spence A, Whitmarsh L, Capstick S, Pidgeon N (2011) Uncertain climate: an investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Glob Environ Chang 21:1015–1024CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Powell M, Dunwoody S, Griffin R, Neuwirth K (2007) Exploring lay uncertainty about an environmental health risk. Public Underst Sci 16:323–343CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Prins G, Galiana I, Green C, Grundmann R, Hulme M, Korhola A, Laird F, Nordhaus T, Rayner S, Sarewitz D, Schellenberger M, Stehr N, Tezuka H (2010) The Hartwell paper: a new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009. Institute for Science, Innovation & Society, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  44. Society R (2010) Climate change: a summary of the science. Royal Society, LondonGoogle Scholar
  45. Shome D, Marx S (2009) The psychology of climate change communication: a guide for scientists, journalists, educators, political aides and the interested public. Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions: Columbia, USAGoogle Scholar
  46. Shwom R, Bidwell D, Dan A, Dietz T (2010) Understanding U.S. public support for domestic climate change policies. Glob Environ Chang 20:472–482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Spence, A., Venables, D., Pidgeon, N., Poortinga, W., & Demski, C. (2010). Public perceptions of climate change and energy futures in britain: summary findings of a survey conducted in January-March 2010. Technical Report (Understanding Risk Working Paper 10–01). School of Psychology, CardiffGoogle Scholar
  48. Taber CS, Lodge M (2006) Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. Am J Polit Sci 50(3):755–769CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Tanner C, Elvers HD, Jandrig B (2007) The ethics of uncertainty. Eur Mole Biol Org 8(10):892–896CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. UK Climate Impacts Programme (2009) Adapting to climate change: UK climate projections. Available from
  51. Ward B (2008) A higher standard than ‘balance’ in journalism on climate change science. Clim Chang 86:13–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Whitmarsh L (2011) Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: dimensions, determinants and change over time. Glob Environ Chang 21:690–700CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wynne B (2010) Strange weather, again: climate science as political art. Theor Cult Soc 27:289–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Zehr S (2000) Public representations of scientific uncertainty about global climate change. Public Underst Sci 9:85–103CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adam Corner
    • 1
    Email author
  • Lorraine Whitmarsh
    • 1
  • Dimitrios Xenias
    • 1
  1. 1.School of PsychologyCardiff University, Affiliate of the BRASS Centre, Cardiff University & Tyndall Centre for Climate Change ResearchCardiff CF10 3ATUK

Personalised recommendations