Heuristics and Climate Change

What role does extreme or unseasonable weather play in public opinions about climate change?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

One of life’s double-edged swords is that we’re constantly learning from experience. Usually, we think of this in terms of the way failure helps us refine our skills to become more successful. Another aspect of this, however, is the way experience serves as an informer for our beliefs about society and the world. Psychologists refer to these experience-based beliefs as heuristics. Heuristics include things like an educated guess, a rule of thumb, or an intuitive ‘gut’ reaction. Heuristics, as it turns out, play a factor in climate change belief.

Most recently, a study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College found belief in climate change rose from 55% in the Spring of 2011 to 62% in December 2011. While almost half of participants who stated they believe in climate change said they based their opinion on personal observations, only 8% said their belief was based on scientific research. Previous studies have found similar trends; after the snowy winters of 2009 and 2010, climate change belief dropped significantly.1

Andrew Weaver, a Canadian climate scientist, laments the most recent findings as a case of the public “mix[ing] up the difference between weather and climate.” He says people tend not to fully grasp that extreme weather is a natural fact of life (and therefore not every instance stems from climate change). Rather, it is the frequency and severity of these events that climate change exacerbates.2 For climate scientists, this is an important distinction, and public understanding of basic facts is crucial to overcoming the cognitive bias that can result from choosing experience over research.

Other studies have found similar, though notably stranger, results. One study found that surveys conducted on hot days generated more responses affirming climate change than surveys conducted on cold days.3 Yet another found that simply conducting the survey in a warm room versus outside on a brisk day produced the same effect.4 Even more discouraging for researchers were studies indicating the majority of respondents unable to identify the primary cause of climate change.5

The semi-good news is that research suggests these variances in opinion are short-term, that the salience of a 24-hour stint of abnormal weather dissipates after a week or so. An extended period of abnormal weather, on the other hand, will have more long-term effects on one’s opinion.6 This can go in either direction, though, as indicated with the decline in climate change belief after the winters of 2009 and 2010.

Although political affiliation is still the dominant influence in determining more long-term climate change belief, researchers are nonetheless concerned about these findings. Fluctuating beliefs and general confusion over basic facts are definite obstacles to systemic change. Researchers Irene Lorenzoni and Nick Pidgeon suggest that it’s crucial for scientists and politicians to “reinforc[e] correct beliefs” and clarify incorrect ones. Without a solid understanding, they say, climate change will never make it to the top of the agenda and progress will remain stunted.


1Borick, Christopher and Barry Rabe “Belief in Global Warming on the Rebound: National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change” Issues in Governance Studies 45 (February 20120): 2

2 Borenstein, Seth (2012 February 28), “University survey links Americans’ growing belief in global warming with higher temps outside” Star Tribune Online, Retrieved March 10, 2012 from <http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/140756293.html
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3 Deryugina, Tatyana “How do people update? The effects of local weather fluctuations on beliefs about global warming” Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyRetrieved March 10, 2012 from < http://economics.mit.edu/files/5945>

4 Risen, J. L., & Critcher, C. R. (2011)Visceral fit: While in a visceral state, associated states of the world seem more likely.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 777-793

5 Lorenzoni, Irene and Nick Pidgeon “Public Views on Climate Change: European and USA Perspectives” Climate Change 77 (2006): 79

6 Deryugina, Tatyana “How do people update? The effects of local weather fluctuations on beliefs about global warming” Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyRetrieved March 10, 2012 from < http://economics.mit.edu/files/5945>

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One response to “Heuristics and Climate Change”

  1. Jeffrey Broadbent says :

    Fascinating explanation of the importance of lived experience as the source of climate change opinions.

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