News Release

Climate reasoning, prior beliefs, and partisanship

Peer-Reviewed Publication

PNAS Nexus

A popular explanation for climate denialism is that humans will adopt beliefs that accord with their political orientation, using their cognitive abilities to explain away identity-inconsistent information in a process called “motivated reasoning.” To test this hypothesis, Bence Bago and colleagues challenged volunteers’ ability to think rationally using time pressure and cognitive loads of varying intensity. The team recruited American participants from Lucid, a website that connects academics with online survey participant pools. The authors found that people who had the ability to deliberate free of cognitive load or time restrictions showed greater coherence between their judgments about climate change and their prior beliefs about climate change. Controlling for this effect, there was no significant residual relationship between partisan identity and judgement. For example, Republicans who believe in climate change were significantly more likely to disagree with arguments against the reality of climate change when they had adequate time to deliberate than when they were rushed and had divided attention. Evaluating new evidence as more reliable if it accords with prior beliefs is sometimes called “confirmation bias,” but such reasoning can also be entirely rational from a Bayesian perspective: Broadly speaking, previously established facts are likely to be true and new contradictory information from an uncertain source is likely to be false. The authors conclude that instead of trying to decouple discussion of climate change from politics, those who wish to communicate about the issue should primarily focus on providing accurate information.

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