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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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