A social science approach to global warming denialism--Part 2

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Jan 10, 2010 at 10:30


This is the second of three-part series devoted to explaining global warming denialism in terms of recent developments in social science.  In Part 1, I introduced the general framework of the Cultural Theory of Risk (CTR), as well as the more refined conceptualization of CTR known as "Cultural Cognition".

The basic idea behind this approach is that individuals tend to form beliefs about societal dangers that reflect and reinforce their visions of the ideal society. I also briefly introduced four specific mechanisms that play a role in shaping those beliefs.  My primary source for discussing Cultural Cognition was the 2008 paper, "Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk", by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan.  In this second part, I take a closer look at the evidence presented about those four mechanisms in that paper, along with some supplementary material.  This will be followed by a specific focus on global warming denialism in Part 3 of this series.

Paul Rosenberg :: A social science approach to global warming denialism--Part 2
Identity-Protective Cognition

In Part 1, I wrote:

The idea of this first mechanism is simplicity itself: It's very hard for anyone to see anything wrong with whatever they identify with most.  OTOH, it's surprisingly easy to think the worst of whatever one happens to despise.

This mechanism is particularly noteworthy because it has to do with where people start out without necessarily paying any particular attention to an issue.  All three other mechanisms we will consider have to do with how attitudes change.  Consequently, it only makes sense to spend the most time on this first mechanism.

In Part 1, I then went on to quote from Kahan's paper:

First is identity-protective cognition. It is much less costly to one's sense of self to believe that behavior one thinks is noble is also societally beneficial, and behavior one things base is also societally harmful, than vice versa. This is particularly so where one's valuation of the behavior is connected to one's self-defining group commitments. Group membership supplies individuals not only with material benefits but a range of important nonmaterial ones, including opportunities to acquire status and self-esteem. Forming beliefs at odds with those held by mem-bers of an identity-defining group can thus undermine a person's well-being-either by threaten-ing to drive a wedge between that person and other group members, by interfering with important practices within the group, or by impugning the social competence (and thus the esteem-conferring capacity) of a group generally. Accordingly, individuals are motivated, subconsciously, to conform their perceptions of risk to ones that are dominant within their self-defining reference groups.

Kahan then goes on to discuss the "white male effect"--research that dealt with at length in another paper, "Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception", which Kahan co-authored with four others.

The "white male effect" refers to the tendency of white males to regard all manner of societal risk as smaller in magnitude and seriousness than do women and minorities.

Put simply, white men run things in America, and thus are much less interested in hearing about how things may be screwed up.  Of course, not all white men are the same.  But precisely because they do run things, those who score high on hierarchy or individualism are likely to be especially invested in things as they are.  Thus identity protective cognition should be expected to play a particularly strong role in influencing them.  This is, of course, quite contrary to their own self-image of superior rationality and freedom from emotion and special interest bias.

As a consequence, Kahan writes:

Consider environmental risk perceptions. Hierarchists are disposed to dismiss claims of environmental risks because those claims implicitly cast blame on societal elites. But white male hierarchists, who acquire status within their way of life by occupying positions of authority within industry and the government, have even more of a stake in resisting these risk claims than do hierarchical women, who acquire status mainly by mastering domestic roles, such as mother and homemaker. In addition, white hierarchical males are likely to display this effect in the most dramatic fashion because of the correlation between being a minority and being an egalitarian.

Along with environmental risks, the study of the white male effect also looked at gun risks and abortion.  The following chart shows how race and gender identity affected attitudes towards all three types of risk, with white males consistently perceiving the least risk:

Figure 2: "White Male Effect" on Risk Perceptions, from "Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception"

Switching lenses, to look at worldview effects produced the following picture:

Figure 3: Cultural Worldview Effect on Risk Perceptions, from "Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception"

In the "White Male" paper, the authors wrote:

As expected, persons who held relative hierarchical and individualistic outlooks-and particularly both simultaneously-were the least concerned about environmental risks and gun risks, while persons who held relatively egalitarian and communitarian views were most concerned. With regard to abortion risks, in contrast, persons who were both relatively hierarchical and communitarian in their views were most concerned; individuals who had an egalitarian outlook, particularly those who qualified as Egalitarian Individualists, were least worried about the risk of abortion for women's health. This pattern, too, conformed to the anticipated influence of group-grid cultural dispositions.

Combining the two lenses produced the following chart.  White males always perceived lower risks, but the degree to which they perceived lower risks varied considerably by worldview and by issue:

Figure 4: Size of "White Male Effect" on Risk Perception Across Cultural Groups, from "Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception"

Regarding this chart, the authors wrote:

These patterns are suggestive of the hypothesized interaction of the white male effect with culture-specific forms of identity-protective cognition. But for definitive testing, it is necessary to disentangle the influences of demographic characteristics and cultural outlooks through multivariate regression analyses.

They then went on to produce the results of of these analyses for all three types of threats, which confirmed the hypothesis.  I don't want to get too deep into the details here, and lose sight of the big picture, but one part of their discussion is worth quoting for what it tells us of the relative strength of different influences.  The following is from the discussion of different regression models in evaluating gun risks.  As is standard practice, the first model tests the smallest number of variables, while each successive model adds more variables to the list. In this case, Model 2 tested gender, race, age, income. education, a taste for risk-taking, community type (urban/suburban/rural) and religion.  Model 3 added the group/grid worldviews, with striking results:

Together the worldview measures increased the explanatory power of Model 2 by over 50%. Hierarchy and Individualism have the first and second largest effect sizes, respectively, of all the independent
variables. When combined, they explain almost 5 times as much variance as gender, 34 times as much as education, and 17 times as much as residing in a rural environment. They explained 20 times as much as party affiliation and ideology when combined, and 10 times as much as the religious affiliation variables when combined. Again, the results strongly supported the hypothesis that cultural worldviews exert a strong identity-protective influence on cognition.

It's particularly worth noting that the worldviews explain "17 times as much as residing in a rural environment." Considering how regularly we hear about gun ownership & attidtudes in rural America, it's certainly worth observing how much more important worldviews are.

Biased Assimilation and Group Polarization

In Part 1, I wrote:

The second mechanism is also simple: we hear what we want, and pay little or no attention to whatever we don't want to hear.  As a result, a polarized audience listening to a balanced presentation will come away even more polarized, because each faction hears only that which reinforces their views.

And I went on to quote from Kahan's paper:

Now let's consider biased assimilation and group polarization. This dynamic reflects the role of values on the processing of information. Because individuals are subconsciously motivated to persist in their beliefs, they attend to evidence and arguments in a selective fashion, crediting information that reinforces their beliefs and dismissing as noncredible information that undermines them. As a result, when individuals are exposed to balanced information supporting and challenging their existing beliefs, they become even more extremely committed to their priors. By same token, when groups of individuals holding opposing beliefs are exposed to balanced information, they don't converge in their views; they polarize.24 We hypothesized that individuals subscribing to competing ways of life would exhibit biased assimilation and polarization when exposed to balanced, competing arguments on a risk they were culturally predisposed to credit or discount.

Here's an example of what that looks like in a relatively rare example where one has a sample that starts off with little or no information as starting condition, making a "before" and "after" comparison particularly straightforward:

The risks in this case were those posed by nanotechonlogy--a subject that most Americans know virtually nothing about.  As Kahan explained in the accompanying text:

One study we've done to test this hypothesis focused on nanotechnology risks.25 Nanotechnology involves the creation and manipulation of extremely small materials, on the scale of atoms or molecules, which behave in ways very different from larger versions of the same materials. It's a novel science; about 80% of the American public say they have either never heard of it, or have heard only a little. We did an experiment in which we compared the nanotechnology risk perceptions of subjects to whom we supplied balanced information risk-benefit information to subjects to whom we supplied no information.

The results confirmed our hypothesis about biased assimilation and polarization. In the no-information condition, individuals of opposing cultural worldviews held relatively uniform risk perceptions. That's not surprising, since the vast majority of them had never heard of nanotechnology. In the information condition, however, hierarchs and egalitarians, and individu-alists and communitarians, all formed opposing views. In other words, individuals holding these worldviews attended to the balanced information on nanotechnology in a selective fashion that reinforced their cultural predispositions toward environmental and technological risks generally. As a result, they polarized.

Cultural Credibility Heuristic

In Part 1, I wrote:

The third mechanism is also simple: people trust who they trust.  Not who is logical, rational or reasonable to trust.

And went on to quote Kahan:

Next is the cultural credibility heuristic. Most people (in fact, all, if one thinks about it) cannot determine for themselves just how large a disputed risk is, whether of environmental catastrophe from global warming, of human illness from consumption of genetically modified foods, of accidental shootings from gun ownership, etc. They must defer to those whom they find credible to tell them which risk claims and supporting evidence to believe and which to disbelieve. The cultural credibility heuristic refers to the hypothesized tendency of individuals to impute to experts whom they perceive as sharing their values the sorts of qualities--including knowledge, honesty, and shared interest--that make their positions on risk worthy of being credited.

To test this, Kahan and his colleagues constructed composite fake experts embodying each of the four ideal types & presented arguments attributed to them, and contrasted the results with other protocols.  The risk subject in this case was HPV vaccine:

We studied the HPV-vaccine risk perceptions of 1,500 Americans. The sample was divided into three groups. One was supplied no information about the HPV vaccine. Another was furnished balanced information in the form of opposing arguments on whether its benefits out-weighed its risks.

The final group was exposed to the same arguments, which in this treatment were attributed to fictional, culturally identifiable experts, who were described as being on the faculties of major universities.... We ended up with four culturally identifiable policy experts whose perceived cultural values located them in the quadrants defined by the intersection of group and grid.

Thus, in the first case, the results were due to the identity-protective-cognition effect.  In the second case, they were due to the biased assimilation and polarization effect.  In the third case, they were due to the cultural credibility heuristic, either in the expected direction or contrary to it.  As seen below, when the experts weighed in according to expectations, the cultural credibility heuristic was modestly stronger than the biased assimilation and polarization effect, in the same direction.  But when the experts weighed in counter to expectations, the effect was even stronger in the opposite direction, which can be seen by comparing the third and fourth dots in each of the four charts below--the first two showing hierarchs vs. egalitarians on the left, and their differences on the right, the second two showing individualists vs. communitarians on the left, and their differences on the right:


[Click to enlarge in new window]

Cultural-Identity Affirmation

In Part 1, I wrote:

The fourth and final mechanism is also simple: Expanding on the precept that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you make people more receptive to potentially threatening information if you first boost their sense of self-worth, so that they are inherently more impervious to threat.

And I quoted Kahan as follows:

The next mechanism, cultural-identity affirmation, also can be seen as a type of "cultural debiasing" strategy. This one is based on self-affirmation, a mechanism which is essentially the mirror image of identity-protective cognition and which has been extensively documented by Geoff Cohen, one of the Cultural Cognition Project members.27 Identity-protective cognition posits that individuals react dismissively to information that is discordant with their values as a type of identity self-defense mechanism. With self-affirmation, individuals experience a stimulus--perhaps being told they scored high on a test, or being required to write a short essay on their best attributes--that makes a worthy trait of theirs salient to them. This affirming experience creates a boost in a person's self-worth and self-esteem that essentially buffers the sense of threat he or she would otherwise experience with confronted with information that challenges beliefs dominant within an important reference group. As a result, individuals react with in a more open-minded way to potentially identity-threatening information, and often experience a durable change in their prior beliefs.

Cultural-identity affirmation hypothesizes that you can get the same effect whey you communicate information about risk in a way that affirms rather than threatens their cultural worldview.28

The example Kahan investigated to explore this mechanism related directly to global warming denialism.  Two articles were presented to test subjects, both advancing the threat of global warming, but in one case saying that a panel of scientists recommended an "anti-pollution" solution, while in the other it said that the panel recommended a nuclear power solution.  The results were striking:

Note that what we're talking about here--as we are throughout this entire series--is simply the perception of risk. This says nothing about people's ideas about what should be done about those risks.  In particular, the biggest problems with nuclear power are the weapons spill-over (dirty bombs as well as nuclear devices) and the total lack of life-cycle safety, meaning that nuclear waste could continue to be dangerous for tens of thousands of years--a time-frame at least an order of magnitude longer than that of any human civilization.  These entail risks that get us into two entirely different cans of worms.

In Part 3 of this series, we attempt to take all the above into account, and ask what they tell us about global warming denialism and how to combat it.  This includes--but is not limited to---a consideration of what Kahan and his colleagues have to say on the subject.


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Maybe their in denial... (0.00 / 0)
because it's snowing in Florida?

How Does Consensus Build? (4.00 / 1)
To understand why conservatives reject global warming.

If they accepted that it was real, what would be the obvious solutions? Massive government intervention in the economy and international cooperation.

What could possibly be worse from a conservative "hierarchs" perspective? From a Liberatarian perspective?

As for the social science showing that people only listen to information that reinforces their world views and legitimates their prejudices, that seems intuitively true.

But, then how does society change norms? How did attitudes about minorities and gays change over the last 40 years?

Clearly there's a COUNTER mechanism in place for consensus building as well as the polarizing mechanisms described above? Social movements begin in the face of NO-AGREEMENT and proceed until acceptance or relative acceptance is reached.

THis constitutes a new more tolerant consensus emerging.

Attitudes about various racial and ethnic minorities proceeded in this fashion. Attitudes about gays is currently proceeding in the same fashion.

Attitudes about war and environmental values are at a lower state of recognition and acceptance, but still clearly have been assimilated to a much greater degree than in the past.

For instance: it is conceded by elites that it is impossible to have a draft in the U.S. because it so fatally undermines popular tolerance for wars of aggression that the U.S. government wants to wage around the world.

That was NOT true between world war II and the end of the Vietnam War.  


[ Parent ]
Better Paul than me (0.00 / 0)
On another blog I comment on, a right-wing troll cited differences in the cost of an MRI across the country as evidence that a free-market existed in health care. He'd never heard of Atul Gawande, let alone read his New Yorker article on the subject.

When pointed to it, courtesy of yours truly, he went dark for a couple of pages, then attacked another commenter for some other transgression against Holy Conservatism. I'm glad that Paul spends as much time as he does digging at the roots of human peculiarity, but honestly, the prospect of listening to another month of It's snowing in Florida, liberal dogs, and you've been blinded by pseudo-science, is really more than I can take.

Whatever it is that makes us the way we are, calling stuff like this lunacy and moving on seems the best way to protect my own sanity.


Snow In Florida (4.00 / 1)
It snowed in South Florida in 1977, I believe.  I was there, but I was in a hot spot outside of Homestead where no snow fell.  However, I distinctly remember that it was 72 degrees in Fairbanks, Alaska that day.

So much for linear interpolation in a non-linear world.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Global Warming doesn't mean uniform warming (0.00 / 0)
But when have deniers ever tried to really dig into climate science?

Loathe as I am to use a phrase that I think was coined by Thomas Friedman (unless someone can correct me), 'global weirding' is a bit more accurate.  Climate and weather will become less predictable rather than warmer across the board.  Granted it's all going to get warmer eventually, but the degree changes will vary.

Whether it's warmer or weirder likely means little to the developing world farmer, for whom climate insecurity is climate insecurity no matter the effect- it'll fuck with crop cycles.

Figuring out how to be a progressive college graduate transplant to Ohio:  http://citizenobie.wordpress.com/


[ Parent ]
Obviously, but also if you look at the current weather pattern (4.00 / 1)
affecting the southeast US, it is actually stemming out of warm water extending into Greenland, where it ought not to be. If I am to believe my environmental scientist father whose been studying weather maps since he was six, rather than, say, William Timberman's denier "pal."

[ Parent ]
It's hard to know (0.00 / 0)
when there is a point to trying.

I think Paul has a vital insight in declaring that conservative politics are mostly about identity politics.

I used to think that it was a bad set opinions and stubbornness.  But I have also been on conservative messageboards trying to reason with more moderate appearing conservatives on their terms.  I realize that they aren't fighting the ideas, but me.  Because I believe certain things about the world, I am morally or intellectually inferior, and regardless of what I say, they truly and apparently honestly will block out the information.  

Which is part of my ongoing disagreement with Paul's practice of calling people crazy.  The Republicans always call liberals crazy, and they believe it, so it seems to me on the surface to be the same dynamic.  But I doubt it is - I think Paul uses it as a label for ideas ("crazy ideas") rather than a cultural label ("crazy old hippies").

It does lead to a sense of helplessness.  No amount of framing or reason can get through these defense mechanisms.  We just have to wait for the demographic tide to turm.


[ Parent ]
Snow in Florida illustrates the theories (4.00 / 1)
Slumlord seizes on a literal interpretation of the term "global warming" and says if it's snowing in Florida then global warming is a hoax.  

If the term "climate change" is used to describe the harmful effects of polluting gases clogging up the earth's atmosphere, Slumlord would not say, "Wow, it snowed in Florida. Maybe this climate change thing is real." Slumlord would say climate change is a hoax because it's still cold and snowy in northern climes.

Slumlord's cognitive response is to interpret information in such a way that reinforces his or her identity as a member of the global warming denier group.

If global warming deniers are in a research test group, such as Paul describes, and presented with balanced information from legitimate scientists explaining the harmful effects of polluting gases clogging up the earth's atmosphere, would they change their beliefs?  

Let's say Slumlord receives a boost in self-esteem from membership in a global warming denier group. Would he or she be more open to scientific information if the researchers used a "cultural identity affirmation" strategy, something to boost participants' self esteem, as they are presented with this balanced information?

Let's say the experiment included a test on the information presented. Those who score high on the test receive a boost to their self esteem. Would this boost make them more receptive to scientific evidence? Would this boost change their beliefs?

What say ye, Slumlord?

Also, since your risk assessment of global warming is so low in the face of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary, you must be a white male. Is this true?


What is wrong with you people? (0.00 / 0)
I propose a simple 9 word hypothesis as to why some people may be denialists.  Now, suddenly, I'm the poster child for denialism?  I'm not a denialist.  I'm merely proposing an alternative theory to Pauls 5000+ word theory.  

Get a friggin' grip people!!!!


I myself took your comment to function as a regurgitation of some (0.00 / 0)
deniers' arguments. I've heard just that argument. But I'm not clear why you would argue that your point is in contradiction to Paul's arguments. After all, why would such deniers need to confine themselves to what they themselves are able to observe, as opposed to what scientists with laboriously earned expertise state that they themselves have observed. There's clearly a spectacular degree of arrogance on display there, and I take Paul's analysis to be a thorough explanation of that from which this arrogance arises.

[ Parent ]
For the record (4.00 / 1)
I thought your comment was both clever and to the point. I was riffing off it, not denouncing it. That said, Paul's 5,000 words needed to be written -- unless you believe that what motivates denialists is a) simple and b) self-evident.

I'm not accusing of believing that, but if you do, I think -- cleverness aside -- that I'll go with Paul's interpretation.


[ Parent ]
There is a difference between being a denialist and being somebody who's not up on climate science (4.00 / 1)
But what's significant is the degree to which deniers (who maliciously and deliberately misinterpret and distort climate science to fit their view) are able to frame the understanding of people who simply haven't bothered to look into the science, because they have a hegemonic control of the means of discourse.  And because yes, it is hard to understand, and if you set up a straw man where global warming equals uniform warming (in which every day is hotter than all other days before it) then sure, global warming's not happening.

But no climate scientist and good-faith commentator on global warming is saying that, so in the end deniers are just arguing with themselves.  We just also happen to pay the consequences of their echo-chamber.

Figuring out how to be a progressive college graduate transplant to Ohio:  http://citizenobie.wordpress.com/


[ Parent ]
Further illustrates the theory (0.00 / 0)
You deny being a denialist because you're participating in a group that you think shuns denialists.

People who believe that global warming (or climate change or pollution trapped in the atmosphere) poses a threat to life on earth do not shun you. On the contrary, climate change believers would like to educate you.


[ Parent ]
Ok, so if I.. (0.00 / 0)
deny being a denialist that proves that I'm a denialist?

WTF is wrong with you?

Trust me, I'll tell you what I think.  I don't give a sh!t about what the group believes.


[ Parent ]
Your 9 word response (0.00 / 0)
Not only indicates you deny climate change is happening, it is a blunt denial that science, in general, has anything to offer in explaining the world around us.

[ Parent ]
I stand by my statement.. (0.00 / 0)
There are people in this world that deny global warming is happening simply because it's snowing it FL.  They don't want to belong to a group, they don't have self esteem issues, and they don't understand the non linear variable involved.  

Now my problem with you is that you think I'm one of them just because I mentioned it.  Why, I don't know.  Maybe you're afaid of black helecopters and wear aluminum foil hats.

//slaps forehead and remembers why I rarely post here.


[ Parent ]
Everybody belongs to a group - even if it's just their own family (0.00 / 0)
and everyone has self esteem.

[ Parent ]
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