‘Solution Aversion’ Can Help Explain Why Some People Don’t Believe in Climate Change

By
09 Aug 2009, Nordaustlandet, Norway --- Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) reflected in pools on melting ice on Sabinebukta Bay at Irminger Point.
Photo: Paul Souders/Corbis

As Science of Us has previously noted, psychological researchers are very interested in the question of why some people don’t believe in human-cause climate changes despite the overwhelming evidence for it. That’s partly because it’s of obvious importance on the saving-the-world front, and partly because it’s a useful issue for examining all sorts of biases and psychological tendencies that help explain broader divides when it comes to political opinions. A study on this subject by Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay of Duke University adds an intriguing new idea to the mix: “solution aversion.”

The basic idea here is that people are less likely to believe that something’s a problem if they have “an aversion to the solutions associated with the problem,” as the authors put it. Strictly speaking, this doesn’t make sense — when determining whether or not to believe in a problem, all that should matter is evidence for the existence of that problem. (Just because you believe it will be expensive to replace that leak in your roof shouldn’t make your belief in the leak any less likely.)

But it fits into a broader framework of what psychologists call “motivated reasoning” — the human tendency to form beliefs not based on a strictly “objective” reading of the facts, but in a way that offers some degree of psychological protection. “We think politicians have disagreements about the solutions because they have disagreements over the facts,” said Campbell in an email, “when in actuality it’s often the other way around: Partisans have disagreements over the facts because they disagree with solutions.”

So how does this apply to conservatives and climate change? Many conservatives believe in free markets and limited government. Generally speaking, the most well-known potential solutions to the problems posed by climate change involve increased regulation. So Campbell and Kay posited a link between the two: if they could manipulate how the online skeptics in their study viewed the likely solutions to climate change, maybe those respondents would be more likely to trust the science.

Sure enough, that’s what happened: overall, self-identifying Republicans in the study were a lot less likely to say they thought humans were causing climate change, but when the problem was paired with a “free market friendly solution” rather than a “government regulation solution,” a significant gap opened up: on a scale of 0 to 8, Republicans in the free-market solution group ranked the likelihood of humans causing climate change at 5.68, while those who saw the regulation solution put the number at just 3.67 (by way of comparison, the average score for Democrats was 6.7).

The researchers saw the same effect when they asked respondents to what extent they agreed with mainstream climate-change science projections about the warming Earth: Republicans agreed with the science a lot less, but researchers significantly closed the gap by pairing the problem with a free-market solution. (Among self-identifying Democrats, there was basically no difference between the two framings — almost everyone thought climate change was caused by humans, and almost everyone agreed with the science)

And make no mistake: This isn’t just a conservative thing. In another study, the researchers tested the respondents on an issue that tends to resonate more with conservatives than liberals: the danger of home invasion by a criminal. In this case, they hypothesized that, just as conservatives would be less likely to believe in climate change if they were presented with a solution involving government regulation, liberals would be less likely to believe that home invasions are a major problem if they were presented with a solution involving less gun control (so homeowners can protect themselves). That’s exactly what they found.

Now, there’s obviously a big difference between manipulating people’s self-reported beliefs in a lab and convincing them in the infinitely louder, noisier context of the real world, but this is still a promising new avenue for explaining why people come to such different conclusions about which risks to heed and which to ignore — and why debates over some of these issues lead to such grinding, interminable gridlock. “Politicians have already decided what they want the solutions to be,” said Campbell in an email, “and end up believing whatever facts will support those.” To a certain extent, the same can be said of voters.