How People Update Beliefs about Climate Change: Good News and Bad News

12 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2016  

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Sebastian Bobadilla-Suarez

Affective Brain Lab, Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London

Stephanie C. Lazzaro

University College London - Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

Tali Sharot

University College London - Affective Brain Lab, Department of Experimental Psychology

Date Written: September 2, 2016

Abstract

People are frequently exposed to competing evidence about climate change. We examined how new information alters people’s beliefs. We find that people who doubt that man-made climate change is occurring, and who do not favor an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, show a form of asymmetrical updating: They change their beliefs in response to unexpected good news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be less than previously thought) and fail to change their beliefs in response to unexpected bad news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be greater than previously thought). By contrast, people who strongly believe that man-made climate change is occurring, and who favor an international agreement, show the opposite asymmetry: They change their beliefs far more in response to unexpected bad news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be greater than previously thought) than in response to unexpected good news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be smaller than previously thought). The results suggest that exposure to varied scientific evidence about climate change may increase polarization within a population due to asymmetrical updating. We explore the implications of our findings for how people will update their beliefs upon receiving new evidence about climate change, and also for other beliefs relevant to politics and law.

Keywords: Climate Change, Optimistic Bias, Motivated Reasoning

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R. and Bobadilla-Suarez, Sebastian and Lazzaro, Stephanie C. and Sharot, Tali, How People Update Beliefs about Climate Change: Good News and Bad News (September 2, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2821919 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2821919

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts Ave
Areeda Hall 225
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2291 (Phone)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Sebastian Bobadilla Suarez

Affective Brain Lab, Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London ( email )

London
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://affectivebrain.com

Stephanie C. Lazzaro

University College London - Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience ( email )

17 Queen Square
London WC1N 3AR
United Kingdom

Tali Sharot

University College London - Affective Brain Lab, Department of Experimental Psychology ( email )

London
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://affectivebrain.com

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