Report finds 'motivated avoidance' plays a role in climate change politics

For many people, ignorance is bliss when it comes to vexing issues like climate change, according to a new study.

Published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the report shows that people who know very little about an issue -- say the economic downturn, changes in the climate or dwindling fossil fuel reserves -- tend to avoid learning more about it. This insulates them in their ignorance -- a pattern described by researchers as "motivated avoidance."

Faced with complicated or troubling situations, these people often defer to authorities like the government or scientists, hoping they have the situation under control.

"Our research suggests that this kind of overwhelmed feeling, and feeling that an issue is 'above one's head' leads people to feel dependent on the government, and this dependence is managed by trusting the government more to deal with an issue, and this is managed by avoiding the issue," explained Steven Shepherd, a social psychology doctoral student at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an author of the report, in an email.

"This is psychologically easier than taking a significant amount of time to learn about an issue, all the while confronting unpleasant information about it," he added.


The report used survey data from 511 participants between 2010 and 2011. "In four studies we manipulated how we framed a domain like the economy or energy (e.g., simple or complex), and in the one study, we manipulated whether or not a future oil shortage was said to be an immediate problem, or a distant future problem," Shepherd said.

The researchers found that people who received complex information on an issue felt more helpless and more trusting in government compared to those who received relatively simple explanations. In addition, people who felt ignorant on a certain topic -- especially issues with dire consequences like fuel shortages or climate change -- would reject negative information.

But researchers say there's more to it than just plugging your ears and saying "la la la."

The trust-and-avoid ploy

Motivated avoidance stems from a phenomenon known as system justification. "It refers to a motivation that most people hold to believe that the systems that they function with are legitimate," explained Aaron Kay, another author. Kay, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, explained that people working within a government agency or large institution can't really influence the collective group on their own.

So they are inclined to conclude the group largely knows what it's doing. "It doesn't always imply that people think this is good, but they think it's better than the government not being in control," he said. To maintain this view, he noted, people will deliberately avoid information that contradicts it.

"Climate change is a global issue that, seemingly, is beyond the efforts of any one individual. ... I think a lot of people feel unable to do anything about it," said Shepherd. "The next best thing is to either deny it, or defer the issue to governments to deal with it. ... In our research we find that one easy way to maintain that psychologically comforting trust that an issue is being dealt with is to simply avoid the issue."

The authors also speculate that political leanings play into whether people want to trust politicians handle climate change. "I think we see this in the recent 'Occupy' movements, and among those pushing for governments to do more about climate change," Shepherd said.

"People who simply distrust the government to begin with, or libertarians who prefer to have as little government involvement in their lives as possible, are also unlikely to respond to feeling dependent on the government by trusting in them more."

Running from doomsday

Simply informing people about the facts around climate change may not resolve conflicts about it. Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School and a researcher at the Cultural Cognition Project, said his research shows that the people who are most science-literate are often the most polarized when it comes to a controversial issue.

They become further entrenched in their pre-existing beliefs. "It's true that people screening out information is disconcerting and creates dissonance, but we need to explain why a certain segment of the population experiences that motivation," said Kahan. "Everyone has the propensity towards wishful thinking."

According to Kahan, a person's views are governed more strongly by social pressures than by scientific consensus. "If I say climate change is real and I live in Sarah Palin's Alaska or Michele Bachmann's Minnesota, then I may have some problems," he said. "When that claim gets made about climate change, you make yourself vulnerable to be stigmatized."

As a result, successfully getting people to change their minds on climate change may be counterintuitive. "The way to fix the problem is not to turn the volume up on the evidence," said Kahan. "The way to deal with the problem is to change that meaning, to remove what makes it threatening to other people. It's about framing it in a way that doesn't antagonize or come across as an assault on one side."

Kay agreed with Kahan that the issue needs to be reframed. "If you present a message in a way that you make it seem doomsday-ish, people start to look for ways, not to cope with the problem, but to cope with their anxiety with the problem," Kay said. "You want to present the problem originally as one that has the potential to be solved."

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