Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Is It Hot in Here? Or Is the Climate Changing?

• January 27, 2011 • 11:00 AM

What’s one way to convert climate change skeptics? By making them sweat.

How do you get people to understand that climate change is occurring? The question frustrates scientists and policymakers, who face a disbelieving public prone to discounting discomforting data.

A newly published study suggests one answer is to set aside the charts and statistics in favor of a more visceral approach. To put it simply: If you want to convert a skeptic, turn up the thermostat.

Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Clayton Critcher of the University of California, Berkeley, provide evidence that belief in global warming increases along with the temperature one is currently experiencing. The researchers attribute this to a phenomenon they call “visceral fit.”

“We suggest that while experiencing a visceral state, people will judge future states of the world that fit with that experience to be more likely,” they write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As they see it, uncomfortable feelings of warmth stimulate “fluent mental representations” of heat, which give “an inference of validity” to arguments the planet is warming.

Risen and Critcher describe seven studies that support and refine this thesis. In the first, 67 American university students “were taken outside under the pretense of judging the height of several campus landmarks,” they write. The exercise occurred on several days in September and October, when the temperature ranged from 49 to 89 degrees.

The students filled out questionnaires in which they voiced their views on several political topics, including their degree of skepticism regarding climate change. They also reported their ideological leanings.

“We found that ambient temperature significantly predicted the belief in the validity of global warming, with participants reporting greater belief on warmer days,” Risen and Critcher report. “In fact, the effect of temperature was as strong as ideology, and was not qualified by it. Thus, outside temperature influenced liberals and conservatives similarly.”

But was this really a visceral response or an intellectual exercise in which some students (admittedly not exercising sophisticated analytical skills) felt warm and jumped to the conclusion the planet is heating up? To find out, the researchers essentially repeated the experiment, but indoors.

In the second study, 84 students completed the same survey while sitting in a small heated cubicle. For half of them, the cubicle was heated with a space heater for 15 minutes before their arrival, raising the air temperature from a comfortable 73 degrees to a toasty 81 degrees.

Those eight degrees made a difference: “Participants who responded in the heated cubicle believed global warming was more of a fact than those who responded in the control cubicle,” the researchers report. Even in an indoor environment, where the temperature was controlled by humans, “people believed more in global warming when they were made hot than when they were not.”

“As people tried to imagine the hot world implied by global warming, these mental images were simulated more fluently for those who were currently warm, which led to the inference that this hot world was more likely,” the researchers conclude. As William James understood a century ago, bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts are inextricably linked.

While the researchers don’t mention it, their work appears to reveal a tragic irony. Thanks to our use of greenhouse gas-emitting energy supplies, we now spend our summers in air-conditioned buildings and cars, which makes it harder for us to comprehend, on a visceral level, the reality of a warming world. Without such a sense, dire scenarios seem implausible and easy to dismiss.

Breaking this circle will not be easy, but this research provides scientists and educators valuable clues as to how it might be done.

“What makes future events feel more real is not necessarily well-conducted research or impressive meta-analyses that speak to the event’s likelihood of occurrence,” Risen and Critcher write, “but factors that facilitate the ability to picture what the future event would look and feel like.” They add that facilitating that sort of imaginative leap may be the key to “belief formation and acceptance.”

So if you find yourself arguing about climate change with tea partiers, you might want to meet them on their own terms and offer them some tea.

Serve it piping hot.

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.