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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.

 

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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.

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