What We Want to Hear

Before we can discuss climate change, we’ve got to learn to cross identity lines.
August 8, 2016

If there is a platonic ideal of American politics, it is that of the “great debate”: two opposing sides armed with sharp rhetoric and strong values yet with enough wisdom to concede to the soundest argument. Think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates or fictional orators like Jed Bartlett whose victories are founded on speeches of principled logic. Unfortunately, our political reality may be more like House of Cards (or perhaps Veep) than The West Wing, and communication rarely wins out.

This may be because humans are not coldly logical computers who take in information from all sources, calculate possible outcomes, and then make the best decisions from there. Instead, people are “narrowly rational”—they’re guided by principles, yes, but personally subjective ones, and they’re prone to all kinds of mental shortcuts and biases. In particular, humans are driven by their identities and motivated to defend them, whether those identities are Democrat or Republican, Duke fan or UNC fan, or just about anything else. These identities define not only who people are, but to a large extent, how they behave, think, and process information.

This phenomenon—dubbed “motivated reasoning” in the political psychology literature—manifests in some interesting ways. When facing information that corresponds with one’s cognitive motivations, people accept that information happily and uncritically. This effect is a confirmation bias. 

When dealing with dissonant information, however, the motivated reasoner will try to pick apart the offending argument to discredit and reject it. This disconfirmation bias can even metastasize into a “boomerang” or “backfire” effect, wherein the mental process of counter-arguing pushes the individual even farther into his or her prior beliefs, so strong is the process of rejection.

There is also evidence that political polarization increases the potential for identity defense and backfire effects. On deeply polarized issues like climate change that are split along party lines, responses to persuasive information may depend more on partisan identities than anything else.

In a survey-based study, I found that because climate change has become so polarized along party lines, the relevant facts won’t change attitudes, no matter how those facts are presented. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, after reading a paragraph on some projected negative consequences of climate change, became more opposed to governmental action on the issue, less willing to take personal action, and more sure of their opinions on climate change compared to unexposed participants.

Essentially, exposing respondents to information that clashes with their political identity made them more closed off on the issue. What’s more, researchers have found that correcting misperceptions may not be an effective communication tactic. It’s not just that people have a tendency to believe what they want to believe, but also that those beliefs are hard to knock away in debate. People naturally want to justify and defend their identities. I would expect that were I to ask Democrats to read messages arguing that climate change is a hoax, I would also see strong backfire effects.

So what’s to be done? A good start would be for communicators to truly understand their audiences—what they believe, whom they trust, how they believe an issue and/or the world to work. Focus on affirming correct claims rather than ineffectively challenging incorrect ones. And given the current atmosphere of polarized American politics, it also may be more necessary (and difficult) than ever to keep an open mind about our own beliefs. As for climate change in particular, it remains to be seen how to depolarize the issue and effectively communicate across identity lines.

Zhou ’16 earned his Ph.D. in environment from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. His research focuses on environmental politics, political communication, and political psychology.