The way people vote can depend on much more than just the issues being debated scientists have found.
Several studies have shown that subtle psychological cues can be just as effective at influencing voter decisions as what political parties promise in speeches and manifestos.
Nick Chater, professor of behaviour science at Warwick Business School, recently revealed on BBC Radio 4 programme The Human Zoo, just how easily voters can be swayed by things as simple as a dead plant in the room, the weather outside or a politician’s appearance.
I spoke with Chater (pictured below) about how a voter’s understanding of climate change can be influenced and the implications this holds during an election.
Among the different ways we can be influenced, Chater explained how, when presented with a complex issue such as climate change, individuals tend to simplify the problem down to a more personal level. This can often lead to a confusion between global climate change and everyday weather.
As one experiment by Chater demonstrated, individuals are more likely to believe climate change is an important issue if they are in a warm room as opposed to a colder room. “If you’re trying to sew confusion into the climate debate, this is fertile ground because our natural instinct is to think that the immediate state we’re in is a clue, which it really isn’t of course,” he explained.
Clear, confident statements also have a big impact on a voter’s understanding of the issues and trust in a person, be it a political leader or a scientist.
“Two of the most important factors are having a very clear articulation of what you think – and this is not about having a clear evidence base for it, that’s not the primary thing, the primary thing is you can clearly state what it is that you believe – and the other thing is being able to state that with great conviction,” he explained. “Nigel Lawson is sort of our nightmare scenario example of this in Britain.”
When asked what advice he would give to voters who might be confused on the topic, Chater said: “My answer would be to focus on the scientific consensus… Of course, the world is too complex to be sure we understand it perfectly but it would be a foolish thing indeed to think we, as individuals, could be better than the scientific consensus.”
You can read the full interview here:
Q: Can you explain a bit about what these studies on voter influence reveal about how we understand climate change?
A: There’s a general phenomenon here, which is that we are very influenced by the current state we’re in, in lots of ways – so, I’m thinking about the much bigger issues in our own lives, not necessarily for the whole world – in ways that don’t really make sense but are very hard to avoid.
For example, we’ve all had the experience where if you’re not very hungry and you’re shopping you just don’t buy much food or conversely, if you are very hungry and you’re shopping you buy lots of food…
What we’re really seeing with these studies is the same thing, but in relation to climate. The current indication is actually quite a serious problem for trying to convince people that climate change is present and real because, although we all know that the vagaries of the weather are irrelevant, the weather is, nonetheless, highly volatile, so it is inevitably the case that for a large portion of the year we will be thinking it’s pretty cold… or thinking it’s colder than it normally is, and it’s hard for us to intuitively reconcile those things with the wider claim that the climate is warming.
If you’re trying to sew confusion into the climate debate, this is fertile ground because our natural instinct is to think that the immediate state we’re in is a clue, which it really isn’t of course.
Q: Do you think the fact that climate change is such a huge issue, and often quite abstract and complex, leads to confusion among voters?
A: Yes, I think it does. There’s a general tendency – aside from the one I just stated where our current state influences our thinking – which is when you’re given a very difficult question you tend to substitute an easy question and answer that instead.
So for example, if you’re wondering if the economy is improving or not, you might think “that’s really complicated, I just don’t know” but then you might think “hang on, I can think about whether I personally am better off or worse off”… So I can take a hard question and turn it into an easy question, which is in some way related, and then I give my answer.
Now, that’s not a crazy thing to do but is very dangerous because the obvious easy question in the case of climate is “does it feel warmer? Is it warmer as far as I can tell?” If the answer, when peering out the window, is no, not really, then that’s your answer. It’s the wrong one, of course.
There’s also the general tendency to suppress inconvenient truths or suspect conspiracy where none may exist, but I think these are different. [The ones I’m talking about] are very basic properties of the mind which make us take the big issue and substitute a small issue – like the local weather, “am I hot at the moment?” – without even knowing we’re doing it.
Q: Because it can be such a complex and abstract topic, can it give advantage to those who are questioning and repeating the same doubts over and over because that’s a simpler message to convey and understand?
A: Oh yes, absolutely. I think that there are elements of the problem which are extraordinarily simple. Such as the absorptive properties of carbon dioxide, these are not complicated… Of course, the underpinning system is extremely complicated. But in fact the basic story is, in a way, very simple in the sense that it’s a bit like putting on a jumper, you’re probably going to be warmer, other things being equal.
But, I think even that gets obscured because partly there are deliberate attempts to obscure it, but I think part of the reason that it’s difficult is the weather. People get mixed up between global climate and local weather, and even more, “How I’m feeling myself”, that’s probably less explicit, in their minds.
So I think it’s very hard. There’s a huge tendency from an everyday human point of view, and from the point of view of the media, to try and take any speculation about climate change to the immediate implications for the hurricane we’ve just had, or the excessive rainfall, or the particularly hot summer, or whatever it may be, and I think that is a difficult line; it’s a dangerous line to push because that’s making this connection between the local weather and the big picture.
But then of course, that picture can backfire badly because you can say, “We’ve had a pretty cold winter and this summer is not as warm as it was last year, so maybe it’s not a problem.” So once you’ve encouraged people to think they can observe the big picture by this proxy little picture, then it’s a dangerous game to play.
Q: Scientists often emphasise the nuance and the detail whereas politicians and others tend to work off of a clear, confident assertion; how are voters influenced by this?
A: There are a lot of studies in social psychology about… what makes somebody a compelling charismatic believable person. [There are several factors] but two of the most important factors are having a very clear articulation of what you think – and this is not about having a clear evidence base for it, that’s not the primary thing; the primary thing is you can clearly state what it is that you believe – and the other thing is being able to state that with great conviction.
And of course, politicians are masters of this, but neither of those have to do with what the actual evidence [is]. So I think very confident and very well-articulated [statements are influential].
You know, Nigel Lawson is sort of our nightmare scenario example of this in Britain. He’s convincing sounding. If you knew nothing about him you’d think, “Yeah he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, he’s clearly thought a lot about it and this is his view”; it’s always the same, it’s consistent from time to time to time. That’s very powerful.
The general point here is that most of the things we believe we don’t directly have evidence for… if I try to chase down the evidence for the existence of even something like electrons, I know there must be evidence… but I, as an individual, haven’t got a clue what it is, that doesn’t lead me to doubt the existence of electrons.
But, of course, I’m not living in a world where anyone is doubting electrons. If you suddenly started putting up media stories that some physicists weren’t sure about electrons then I’d start to think, “Well hang on, I don’t really know and these scientists can’t make up their own minds, maybe there aren’t electrons.”
It’s a bit like this with climate science; there’s this kind of fake impression that some scientists don’t believe this is true, which is pretty much not the case, but of course from the point of view of the public, since we’re taking things on trust, as soon as we start thinking the experts are confused, then that trust kind of breaks down.
Of course to some extent it’s kind of a media fiction that there are all these mysterious scientists going around saying there’s no such thing as global warming; that’s not really the case but that’s the impression that we get.
Q: What advice would you give to voters who are confused and who don’t have a background in science when it comes to listening to politicians, scientists and the media?
A: My answer would be to focus on the scientific consensus… Of course, the world is too complex to be sure we understand it perfectly but it would be a foolish thing indeed to think we, as individuals, could be better than the scientific consensus.
The second thing I’d say is: remember that scientists get very celebrated and famous by overturning orthodoxy. So if it were the case that there were some brilliant reason why the current orthodoxy were wrong, then some scientists would stand to gain enormously from overturning it…
Sometimes when you’re talking to people who are sceptical of science or of climate change, I think they have the idea that there might be some very obvious reason that scientists haven’t quite spotted that current climate science is all completely wrong, and completely being ignored.
But I think, were that the case – economists have this standard suspicion that there can’t be lots of 20 dollar bills lying around the pavement because if there were 20 dollar bills lying around the pavement they’d have been picked up – it’s a little bit like that: if it were that easy to disprove climate science someone would’ve become famous doing it, but [in this case] you haven’t because it’s not easy and it’s pretty robust, it stands up to a lot of battering.
Q: What advice would you give to politicians trying to convey to voters that they care about the climate? What’s the best method to communicate that wouldn’t confuse voters?
A: My feeling is that the most effective line is to start with the scientific consensus… Beyond that, stressing that many of the things you want to do in response to climate change are things you want to do anyway.
So I think the narrative that’s really ineffective, from a rhetorical point of view or a political point of view, is saying climate change is coming, we’re creating it, therefore we have to radically sacrifice our quality of life and cut back on all kinds of things we really like, this is going to be tough and we’ve just got to do it.
That’s a difficult [message] for people to take, but actually in reality a lot of the things one wants to do in response to climate change are actually things that are really obviously sensible anyway. For example, any reduction in use of fossil fuels, where fossil fuels are clearly a scarce and potentially highly expensive resource, has clearly got to be a good thing… Clearly using your resources efficiently has got to be a positive thing.
So, I think sort of stressing the fact that you’re trying to make society cleaner, more efficient, less dependent on certain sources of energy, more sustainable, these are good things even if it turned out that climate change [wasn’t happening]… There’s no scenario in which we’d regret using our resources more carefully.
For more information, you can check out the following studies:
“Visceral Fit: While in a Visceral State, Associated States of the World Seem More Likely” Jane Risen and Clayton Critcher, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. May 2011.
Li, Y., Johnson, E. J., & Zaval, L. (2011). Local warming daily temperature change influences belief in global warming. Psychological Science.
Photo: Secretlondon123 via Flickr