Americans' interpretations of global warming are influenced by both their personal experience and their existing beliefs, reports research in Nature Climate Change this week. Whereas experiential-learning hypotheses suggest that direct experience increases awareness of climate change, motivated-reasoning theories focus on how strong beliefs influence perception of personal experience. This study in the USA shows that rather than being rival ideas, both hypotheses hold true
Teresa Myers and colleagues interviewed a nationally representative sample of Americans in 2008, and again in 2011, to gauge their beliefs about climate change. They investigated whether perceived personal experience led to belief certainty or vice versa, using a new approach that takes advantage of the sequential order of responses over time. The researchers report that personal experience and belief certainty both influence each other.
They also found that motivated reasoning occurs primarily among people already highly engaged in global-warming issues, whereas experiential learning happens among less engaged individuals — an important result, given that 75% of Americans are poorly engaged at present. The authors go on to suggest that climate change education strategies that highlight the local impacts of climate change in a way that can be physically experienced by people, may succeed in the USA.