Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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