‘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.
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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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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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
- Climate Change
- Public Engagement
- Attitude Polarisation
- Newspaper Editorial
- Prior Attitude