Letter | Published:

Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 334337 (2013) | Download Citation

Abstract

Political and media debate on the existence and causes of climate change has become increasingly factious in several western countries, often resting on claims and counter-claims about what most citizens really think. There are several well-established phenomena in psychology about how people perceive the prevalence of opinions, including the false consensus effect1 (a tendency to overestimate how common one’s ‘own’ opinion is) and pluralistic ignorance2 (where most people privately reject an opinion, but assume incorrectly that most others accept it). We investigated these biases in people’s opinions about the existence and causes of climate change. In two surveys conducted 12 months apart in Australia (n = 5,036; n = 5,030), respondents were asked their own opinion about the nature of climate change, and then asked to estimate levels of opinion among the general population. We demonstrate that opinions about climate change are subject to strong false consensus effects, that people grossly overestimate the numbers of people who reject the existence of climate change in the broader community, and that people with high false consensus bias are less likely to change their opinions.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    , & The false consensus effect: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 13, 279–301 (1977).

  2. 2.

    & Pluralistic ignorance and the perpetuation of social norms by unwitting actors. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 28, 161–209 (1996).

  3. 3.

    , , & Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers. Nature Clim. Change 2, 600–603 (2012).

  4. 4.

    , & Behavioral dimensions of climate change: Drivers, responses, barriers, and interventions. WIREs: Climatic Change 2, 801–827 (2011).

  5. 5.

    & Baseline Survey of Australian Attitudes to Climate Change: Preliminary Report. (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 2010); available at .

  6. 6.

    & The measurement of key behavioral science constructs in climate change research. Int. J. Sustain. 3, 37–95 (2008).

  7. 7.

    & Boomerang effects in science communication: How motivated reasoning and identity cues amplify opinion polarization about climate mitigation policies. Commun. Res. 39, 701–723 (2012).

  8. 8.

    et al. The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Clim. Change 2, 732–735 (2012).

  9. 9.

    & Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 1163–1172 (2011).

  10. 10.

    , & System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of system-sanctioned change. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 36, 326–38 (2010).

  11. 11.

    & Pluralistic ignorance across issues and over time: Information cues and biases. Public Opin. Quart. 61, 227–260 (1997).

  12. 12.

    & The ‘golden section’ and bias in perceptions of social consensus. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 1, 241–271 (1997).

  13. 13.

    & What underlies the false consensus effect? How personal opinion and disagreement affect perception of public opinion. Int. J. Public Opin. R. 21, 25–46 (2009).

  14. 14.

    & Perceptions of a fluid consensus: Uniqueness bias, false consensus, false polarization, and pluralistic ignorance in a water conservation crisis. Pers. Soc. Psychol. B 29, 559–567 (2003).

  15. 15.

    The false consensus effect: A meta-analysis of 115 hypothesis tests. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 21, 262–283 (1985).

  16. 16.

    & Ten years of research on the false-consensus effect: An empirical and theoretical review. Psychol. Bull. 102, 72–90 (1987).

  17. 17.

    , , , & The false consensus effect: Predicting adolescents’ tobacco use from normative expectations. Psychol. Rep. 70, 171–178 (1992).

  18. 18.

    The Spiral of Silence 2nd edn (Univ. Chicago Press, 1993).

  19. 19.

    , , , & Uncertain climate: An investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 1015–1024 (2011).

  20. 20.

    A Sceptical Climate: Media Coverage of Climate Change in Australia. Part 1—Climate Change Policy. (The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, Univ. Technology, 2011).

  21. 21.

    From convergence to contention: United States mass media representations of anthropogenic climate change science. Transactions 32, 477–489 (2007).

  22. 22.

    & Testing public (un)certainty of science: Media representations of global warming. Sci. Commun. 26, 129–151 (2004).

  23. 23.

    & Media’s social construction of environmental issues: Focus on global warming—a comparative study. Int. Soc. Soc. Policy 23, 74–105 (2003).

  24. 24.

    & Prejudiced people perceive more community support for their views: The role of own, media, and peer attitudes in perceived consensus. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 40, 710–731 (2010).

  25. 25.

    Murdoch’s Australia and the shaping of a nation. Quart. Essay 43, 1–119 (2011).

  26. 26.

    A methodological note about the measurement of the false-consensus effect. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 30, 569–581 (2000).

  27. 27.

    , , , & Australians’ Views of Climate Change (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 2011).

  28. 28.

    , & Assessing Climate Change Beliefs: Question Wording and Criterion Validity (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 2012).

  29. 29.

    & Second Annual Survey of Australian Attitudes to Climate Change: Interim Report (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation 2011); available at .

Download references

Acknowledgements

Research for this paper was financially supported by the CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. CSIRO, Ecosystem Sciences, Perth, Western Australia 6913, Australia

    • Z. Leviston
    •  & I. Walker
  2. Dresden University of Technology, 01062 Dresden, Germany

    • S. Morwinski

Authors

  1. Search for Z. Leviston in:

  2. Search for I. Walker in:

  3. Search for S. Morwinski in:

Contributions

Z.L. designed the studies, coordinated data collection, analysed the data and wrote the paper. I.W. contributed to all aspects of the paper, including project planning, study design, statistical analysis, and writing and revisions. S.M. contributed to the writing and revisions of this paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Z. Leviston.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1743

Further reading