In Climate Change Debate, Perception Is Reality

A recent study conducted by Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioral science, and Clayton Critcher finds that people may judge a certain condition of the world to be more likely if it fits in with their current personal experiences.


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Feeling and Forecasting: According to research by Jane Risen, people tend to match their visceral experiences and physical states to those of the world. Experiencing thirst and warmth, for instance, increased participants’ concerns about the harms of drought and desertification.

In recent years, a few researchers have begun to examine the possibility that opinions about global warming may be influenced by local weather patterns, but those studies did not test whether visceral experience was the cause of this shift in beliefs.

What makes a future event feel more real is not necessarily well-conducted research that speaks to the event’s likelihood,” said Risen, “but factors that enable us to picture what that future event would look like.” Risen and Critcher decided to examine if altering a person’s current environment could have an impact on their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs regarding larger issues. Their study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that when people experience elevated temperatures—naturally or artificially—they are more likely to believe in global warming.

Participants in the study were asked to rate their beliefs about global warming on an 11-point sliding scale. Those who were placed in the heated room were about 10 percent more confident that global warming was real than those placed in the neutral control room. Interestingly, both people who self-identified as liberals and conservatives were equally affected by the environment they experienced, even when the elevated temperature was pointed out to them.

The research indicates that the effect is not limited to participants’ beliefs about global warming. In another experiment, participants who were made to experience thirst by eating pretzels were more likely to agree that desertification and drought would increasingly threaten people’s ability to find fresh drinking water.

The results seem to suggest wide-ranging implications for both economic and public policy. “Although there is no doubt that scientific evidence is an important method for convincing people of scientific facts,” Risen says, “our research suggests that factors that facilitate the ability to picture what a future event would look and feel like may, at times, exert a strong (if not stronger) effect.” Perhaps, in the end, feeling really is believing.—K.M.

Last Updated 9/16/11