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How Cultural Values Shape Climate Change Beliefs

While scientists and environmentalists scratch their heads at the incredulity of climate change skeptics, it turns out that one's willingness to...


While scientists and environmentalists scratch their heads at the incredulity of climate change skeptics, it turns out that one's willingness to believe in climate change hinges on that person's world view. According to social scientists, people's beliefs are more strongly shaped and influenced by cultural values than concrete evidence.A story on NPR details the findings of the Cultural Cognition Project, which studies how people's perception of the world affects their beliefs about matters of fact. According to Don Braman, a social scientist and lawyer who works with the project, participants in experiments split into two groups: individualists, who accept new technology, authority, and free enterprise; and communitarians, who are apprehensive of authority or commerce and industry. Braman says that when given the same set of facts for a range of topics, the two groups "start to polarize as soon as you start to describe the potential benefits and harms."In the end, people are more willing to be open-minded if the potential benefits are consistent with their already established point of view. Thus, if you tell an individualist that global warming can be solved by regulating industrial pollution, he or she will reject its existence; but tell that same individualist that the solution is nuclear power and he or she will suddenly see the problem as a real one.Another mitigating factor at play is the "messenger effect," meaning people are more likely to listen and accept facts if they come from people with similar worldviews. When data comes from a mouthpiece people can relate to, the protective walls come down and any perceived threat to their values decreases.In an article in Nature, Dan Kahan, another scholar involved with the project, explains that there are a few potential solutions to combat what they call "protective cognition," but the best technique is simply in the presentation. He writes, "We need to learn more about how to present information in forms that are agreeable to culturally diverse groups, and how to structure debate so that it avoids cultural polarization." Until news networks and scientists manage to somehow expunge people's rooted beliefs, you can continue to share pages of facts and figures, but if the issue proves a threat to social relationships with close peers, you might as well be reading to the wall.Photo via iStockphoto
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