Home > Culture, Decision Making, Rationality, Socio-Cultural Systems > Climate Change and Cognitive Dissonance: A Brief Study in Critical Thinking

Climate Change and Cognitive Dissonance: A Brief Study in Critical Thinking

I came across an article at Grist.com by David Roberts who believes that right-wingers who question climate change are, in fact, part of a much larger conspiracy to undermine trust in American social and economic institutions.  To support this view, Roberts shows two graphs based on Gallup polling data.  The first shows eroding trust in various institutions.  (Click on the graph for larger versions).

gallup-institutions-minus-police-military

The second shows increasing trust in the police and military.

gallup-institutions-police-military

Roberts writes the following:

The decline in trust in institutions has generated fear and uncertainty, to which people generally respond by placing their trust in protective authorities. And some subset of people respond with tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. The right stokes and exploits modern anxiety relentlessly, but that’s not all they do. They also offer a space to huddle in safety among the like-minded. The conservative movement in America has created a self-contained, hermetically sealed epistemological reality — a closed-loop system of cable news, talk radio, and email forwards — designed not just as a source of alternative facts but as an identity. That’s why conservatives catch hell when they’re skeptical of climate skepticism. They’re messing with tribal cohesion and morale.

Roberts has one thing right – humans tend to associate with like-minded people.  People don’t like having their beliefs and values challenged, which creates cognitive dissonance.  People, therefore, avoid dissonance by seeking out others who will reinforce existing beliefs.  This is why conservatives watch Fox News and liberals watch MSNBC.

Disclosure:  I am politically moderate and am not registered with any political party.  I’ve supported candidates from both parties, though I generally find politicians to be spineless kiss asses.  I generally think far right and far left wingers are nutjobs, though I support their constitutional right to be nutjobs.

Sometimes, however, people run into others who do not believe as they do, and beliefs are challenged.  When this happens, more often than not people will seek out selective evidence that supports their viewpoint, while ignoring evidence that undermines it.  This is called confirmation bias.  The author is essentially saying that conservatives are in a self-reinforcing loop of confirmation bias.

Of course they are…but liberals are too.

Take another look at the graphs.  There is an alternate explanation for the data.  The graph without the military or police generally tracks with the economy.  When the economy is good, trust goes up.  When the economy is down (late 1970s, early 1990s, and late 2000s), trust goes down.  Perhaps this data does not indicate the existence a highly organized, covert conspiracy by right wingers to undermine the fabric of American society.  Perhaps this data simply shows periods of time when Americans felt lousy.

Now, take a look at the police data.  Note that it starts in the early 1990s.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, crime in the United States reached its peak in with a crime rate of 5,897.8 per 100K in 1991.  Since then, violent crime has decline every year, reaching a low of 3,465.5 in 2009.  Crime goes down, trust in police goes up.  Pretty simple.  Again, no real conspiracy here.

Take a look at the military data.  The military has always been one of the most respected institutions in the U.S., however, this data starts in 1973, during the latter part of Viet Nam when the war was highly unpopular.  This is the only time in American history veterans were spit on upon returning from war.  Naturally, this probably represents an all-time low for trust in the military.

So, by selectively showing the right data, Roberts was doing exactly what he accused the right wingers of doing on a larger scale – selectively finding data to support a pre-conceived point of view.  Confirmation bias.

Like I said before, it is a human (psychological) phenomenon – ideology is irrelevant.

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  1. October 1, 2014 at 3:02 am

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