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

Abstract

‘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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    The research in this manuscript is predicated on the uncontroversial scientific position that human activity is the primary forcing of current observed climate change. We take the mildly normative position that public awareness of and engagement with the issue of climate change, and the significant negative impacts it has on human and natural systems, is a desirable goal. We do not discuss these issues further in the main body of the paper.

  2. 2.

    The term ‘biased’ does not indicate a judgment about the validity of a particular opinion. It is a formal term for a process that has been well documented in the social psychological literature: the tendency of individual s to assimilate new information in a way that is consistent with their existing attitudes.

  3. 3.

    We discuss the difference between reported and actual attitude change in detail later in the paper—but actual attitude change would typically be measured by a ‘before-and-after’ method, where participants respond to a question asking them to state their current attitude towards a topic. Reported attitude change would typically be measured only once, after the provision of some information or stimuli, and would require participants to state whether their attitudes had changed since before the experiment was administered (i.e., a self-assessed change in attitudes).

  4. 4.

    A great deal of experimental psychology utilises ‘convenience samples’—which typically means the undergraduates studying in the Psychology department where the researchers are based. In the UK, the gender ratio of Psychology undergraduates is almost always heavily skewed towards females, and this is reflected in our sample.

  5. 5.

    Despite the loss of statistical power associated with transforming a continuous variable into a categorical one, a median split (and the corresponding use of statistical Analyses of Variance) permitted us to observe evidence of polarization more clearly than continuous data and regression analyses. We repeated the analyses presented here using a different split (around the ‘absolute’ value of 0 on the scepticism scale). The results did not differ, suggesting that a median-split was an appropriate way of analysing the data.

  6. 6.

    In both convincingness and reliability ratings, the scientific editorials were rated more highly than the editorials that focussed on moral/political uncertainty. This indicates that the two experimental conditions were not equivalent. However, we were not seeking to construct editorials of equivalent strength (which would be challenging for multiple reasons), but to compare participants’ responses to the different types of uncertainty—scientific and moral/political—generated through the conflicting articles.

References

  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):338–352

    Article  Google 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 9:205–218

    Article  Google 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):470–481

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. British Broadcasting Corporation (2010) BBC climate change poll—February 2010. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/05_02_10climatechange.pdf

  5. Budescu DV, Broomell S, Por H (2009) Improving communication of uncertainty in the reports of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Psychol Sci 20:299–308

    Article  Google 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 43–58

    Google Scholar 

  7. Carvalho A, Burgess J (2005) Cultural circuits of climate change in U.K. broadsheet newspapers, 1985–2003. Risk Anal 25(6):1457–1469

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Corbett JB, Durfee JL (2004) Testing public (Un) certainty of science: media representations of global warming. Sci Commun 26:129–151

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Corner A, Hahn U (2009) Evaluating scientific arguments: evidence, uncertainty & argument strength. J Exp Psychol Appl 15(3):199–212

    Article  Google 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, Italy

  11. DEFRA (2007) Survey of public attitudes and behaviours toward the environment: 2007. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London

    Google Scholar 

  12. Doran PT, Zimmerman MK (2009) Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. EOS, Trans Am Geophys Union 90(3):22–23

    Article  Google 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, CO

    Google 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):425–442

    Article  Google 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):75–85

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gallup (2009) Increased number think global warming is “Exaggerated”. http://www.gallup.com/poll/116590/increased-number-think-global-warming-exaggerated.aspx

  17. Hahn U, Harris AJ, Corner A (2009) Argument content and argument source: an exploration. Informal Logic 29(4):337–367

    Google 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 37:1571–1578

    Google Scholar 

  19. Hulme M (2009) Why we disagree about climate change: understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  20. Kahan D, Braman D, Jenkins-Smith H (2010) Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Cultural Cognition Project Working Paper No. 77

  21. Kuhn D, Lao J (1996) Effects of evidence on attitudes: is polarization the norm? Psychol Sci 7(2):115–120

    Article  Google 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):861–876

    Article  Google 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):2098–2109

    Article  Google 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 17:445–459

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lorenzoni I, Pidgeon NF, O’Connor RE (2005) Dangerous climate change: the role for risk research. Risk Anal 25(6):1287–1398

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Maio GR, Haddock GG (2010) The psychology of attitudes and attitude change. Sage, London

    Google 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.C

    Google 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):561–574

    Article  Google 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):103–109

    Google 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):636–653

    Article  Google 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 24:267–277

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Oppenheimer M (2005) Defining dangerous anthropogenic interference: the role of science, the limits of science. Risk Anal 25(6):1399–1407

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Patt A (2007) Assessing model-based and conflict-based uncertainty. Glob Environ Chang 17:37–46

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Patt A, Dessai S (2005) Communicating uncertainty: lessons learned and suggestions for climate change assessment. Cr Geosci 337(4):425–441

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Patt AG, Schrag DP (2003) Using specific language to describe risk and probability. Clim Chang 61:17–30

    Article  Google 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):69–81

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press (2009) Fewer Americans see solid evidence of global warming. Available from http://people-press.org/report/556/global-warming

  38. Pidgeon N, Fischhoff B (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nat Clim Change 1(1):35–41

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Plous S (1991) Biases in the assimilation of technological breakdowns: do accidents make us safer? J Appl Soc Psychol 21(13):1058–1082

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Pollack HN (2005) Uncertain science.. . uncertain world. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google 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 21:1015–1024

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Powell M, Dunwoody S, Griffin R, Neuwirth K (2007) Exploring lay uncertainty about an environmental health risk. Public Underst Sci 16:323–343

    Article  Google 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, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  44. Society R (2010) Climate change: a summary of the science. Royal Society, London

    Google 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, USA

  46. Shwom R, Bidwell D, Dan A, Dietz T (2010) Understanding U.S. public support for domestic climate change policies. Glob Environ Chang 20:472–482

    Article  Google 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, Cardiff

  48. Taber CS, Lodge M (2006) Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. Am J Polit Sci 50(3):755–769

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Tanner C, Elvers HD, Jandrig B (2007) The ethics of uncertainty. Eur Mole Biol Org 8(10):892–896

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. UK Climate Impacts Programme (2009) Adapting to climate change: UK climate projections. Available from http://ukclimateprojections.defra.gov.uk/content/view/824/517/

  51. Ward B (2008) A higher standard than ‘balance’ in journalism on climate change science. Clim Chang 86:13–17

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Whitmarsh L (2011) Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: dimensions, determinants and change over time. Glob Environ Chang 21:690–700

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Wynne B (2010) Strange weather, again: climate science as political art. Theor Cult Soc 27:289–305

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Zehr S (2000) Public representations of scientific uncertainty about global climate change. Public Underst Sci 9:85–103

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adam Corner.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

ESM 1

(DOCX 56 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Corner, A., Whitmarsh, L. & Xenias, D. Uncertainty, scepticism and attitudes towards climate change: biased assimilation and attitude polarisation. Climatic Change 114, 463–478 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0424-6

Download citation

Keywords

  • Climate Change
  • Public Engagement
  • Attitude Polarisation
  • Newspaper Editorial
  • Prior Attitude