If Catastrophic Weather Events Don’t Get Us, Irrationality Might. How Language Changes our Choices

Whether people accept manmade global warming as real may depend on the weather outside that particular day, a new study finds.

Weather and climate

The study results suggest that because global warming and climate are complex and long-term trends, people may be more likely to grasp onto a simpler, more easily accessible explanation — the weather.

Ye Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Columbia Business School’s Center for Decision Sciences, said in a statement.”Global warming is so complex, it appears some people are ready to be persuaded by whether their own day is warmer or cooler than usual, rather than think about whether the entire world is becoming warmer or cooler,” “It is striking that society has spent so much money, time and effort educating people about this issue, yet people are still so easily influenced.”

Li, the study’s lead researcher, added that this would be analogous to a person looking in his or her wallet to make a call on how well the economy is doing.

However, climatologists explain that pinning climate change on a single event makes no sense, since climate includes the weather over the long term.

Research last year showed that about 75 percent of Americans accept human-caused global warming, a number that was down from 84 percent in 2007. Those researchers attributed the decline to perceptions of recent weather changes by those who are skeptical of climate change.

Swayed by the weather

In the new study, the researchers first surveyed 582 U.S. and Australian participants who reported how convinced they were “that global warming is happening,” and how much they “personally worried about global warming.” Participants also indicated how much colder or warmer the weather was from normal for that time of year.

“People who thought the current day’s temperature was warmer than usual were more likely to believe in and worry about global warming than people who thought the current day’s temperature was colder than usual,” the researchers write in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science. For those who said the weather was either “much colder” or “much warmer” than usual, there was a 1-point difference on a 4-point scale in both belief and concern about global warming.

The team used a statistical model to figure out whether a person’s views of global warming affected their ratings of temperature (perhaps these individuals are more attuned to the weather) rather than the other way around. Results showed that wasn’t the case, suggesting temperature was causing the beliefs and concerns about global warming.

To find out whether these swayed beliefs affected behavior, the team had a different set of 251 participants answer the same questions as in the study but also indicate whether they’d donate some of the fee awarded for participating in the study to the Clean Air-Cool Planet, an organization focused on finding and promoting global warming solutions.

Sixty-three percent of participants who rated the day as much warmer than usual donated money, with an average donation of $2.04, whereas just 24 percent of participants who rated weather as much colder than usual donated, with the average donation being 48 cents.

The researchers interpret the results as suggesting people in general use an easily accessible judgment (current weather) instead of a more complex and less accessible one (global temperature trends) when thinking about climate change.

Here are five more ridiculously simple things that get people to change their minds:

What’s on TV. Remember the 2004 hit film The Day After Tomorrow, in which global warming throws Earth into a new ice age, all of a sudden, much to everyone’s surprise. After the movie came out, one study showed, people believed in global warming more, worried about it more, and felt it was more dangerous than they had a few weeks earlier. Where data fail, have Jake Gyllenhaal run through the streets of an ice-bound New York.

Wording of what’s happening. About 10% more people think weird things will happen to Earth’s climate when you call those weird things “climate change” than “global warming,” a study in March found—because the exact phrasing is what’s really important here, not the weird-climatic-things part.

Wording of what we should do. It’s no secret that feelings on climate change are split along party lines, or that Republicans/Australian Liberals don’t much care for taxes. If you ask people to shell out extra cash for a plane ticket because of a carbon tax that will make up for the trip’s environmental effects, they won’t. But, according to a 2010 study when the price bump is called an offset rather than a tax, all will pay up. One extra syllable to garner bipartisan consensus? Wow, that was easy.

The order of the options. People asked “paper or plastic?” will tend to go for the recyclable paper bags, while people asked “plastic or paper?” will often choose the environment-strangling plastic bags, says psychologist Elke Weber, who studies how people make decisions related to climate change and the many ways in which those decisions don’t make sense. For choices like this where we don’t much care—and really, paper and plastic bags are equally easy to carry home— query theory tells us that people often pick what they want based on how the options are presented; they tend to go for whatever they heard first. Even if it’s only a three-word question. (By the way, it’s not actually that clear whether paper or plastic is better, but it seems most people haven’t heard that, based on the fact that they keep asking or assuming it’s paper.)

Whether we get a pep talk. Irreversible change to the planet’s climate is a scary thing. But people are less likely to believe that climate change exists when they’re told what a disaster it will be, a recent study showed, then when they’re giving an “upbeat message” about solutions. So, the worse it is, the more people are convinced it’s not happening. Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?


  1. Christine says:

    Great summary – thanks!
    I’m one mother that understands that we need to address this issue on a societal level in the next 10 years, or our children and grandchildren will hate us.