Review Article | Published:

The evidence for motivated reasoning in climate change preference formation

Nature Climate Changevolume 9pages111119 (2019) | Download Citation


Despite a scientific consensus, citizens are divided when it comes to climate change — often along political lines. Democrats or liberals tend to believe that human activity is a primary cause of climate change, whereas Republicans or conservatives are much less likely to hold this belief. A prominent explanation for this divide is that it stems from directional motivated reasoning: individuals reject new information that contradicts their standing beliefs. In this Review, we suggest that the empirical evidence is not so clear, and is equally consistent with a theory in which citizens strive to form accurate beliefs but vary in what they consider to be credible evidence. This suggests a new research agenda on climate change preference formation, and has implications for effective communication.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Hart, P. S. & Nisbet, E. C. Boomerang effects in science communication: how motivated reasoning and identity cues amplify opinion polarization about climate mitigation policies. Commun. Res. 39, 701–723 (2012).

  2. 2.

    Dietz, T. Bringing values and deliberation to science communication. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 14081–14087 (2013).

  3. 3.

    Druckman, J. N. Communicating policy-relevant science. PS 48, 58–69 (2015).

  4. 4.

    Kahan, D. M. In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (eds Scott, R. A. & Kosslyn, S. M.) 1–16 (2016).

  5. 5.

    Arceneaux, K. & Vander Wielen, R. J. Taming Intuition: How Reflection Minimizes Partisan Reasoning and Promotes Democratic Accountability (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 2017).

  6. 6.

    Kahan, D. M., Landrum, A., Carpenter, K., Helft, L. & Hall Jamieson, K. Science curiosity and political information processing. Polit. Psychol. 38, 179–199 (2017).

  7. 7.

    Bullock, J. G. Partisan bias and the Bayesian ideal in the study of public opinion. J. Polit. 71, 1109–1124 (2009).

  8. 8.

    Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., Bain, P. G. & Fielding, K. S. Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 622–626 (2016).

  9. 9.

    Fazio, R. H. Attitudes as object-evaluation associations of varying strength. Soc. Cogn. 25, 603–37 (2007).

  10. 10.

    Howe, L. C. & Krosnick, J. A. Attitude strength. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 68, 327–51 (2017).

  11. 11.

    Kunda, Z. The case for motivated reasoning. Psychol. Bull. 108, 480–498 (1990).

  12. 12.

    Molden, D. C. & Higgins, E. T. In The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (eds Holyoak, K. J. & Morrison, R. G.) 390–409 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

  13. 13.

    Hill, S. J. Learning together slowly: Bayesian learning about political facts. J. Polit. 79, 1403–1418 (2017).

  14. 14.

    Ripberger, J. T. et al. Bayesian versus politically motivated reasoning in human perception of climate anomalies. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 114004 (2017).

  15. 15.

    van der Linden, S. The conspiracy-effect: exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Pers. Indiv. Differ. 87, 171–173 (2015).

  16. 16.

    Guess, A. & Coppock, A. Does counter-attitudinal information cause backlash? Results from three large survey experiments. Br. J. Polit. Sci. (2018).

  17. 17.

    Li, Y., Johnson, E. J. & Zaval, L. Local warming: daily temperature change influences belief in global warming. Psychol. Sci. 22, 454–459 (2011).

  18. 18.

    Zaval, L., Keenan, E. A., Johnson, E. J. & Weber, E. U. How warm days increase belief in global warming. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 143 (2014).

  19. 19.

    Egan, P. J. & Mullin, M. Turning personal experience into political attitudes: the effect of local weather on Americans’ perceptions about global warming. J. Polit. 74, 796–809 (2012).

  20. 20.

    Weber, E. U. & Stern, P. C. Public understanding of climate change in the United States. Am. Psychol. 66, 315–328 (2011).

  21. 21.

    Jolley, D. & Douglas, K. M. The social consequences of conspiracism: exposure to conspiracy theories decreases intentions to engage in politics and to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Br. J. Psychol. 105, 35–56 (2014).

  22. 22.

    Lodge, M. & Taber, C. S. The Rationalizing Voter (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 2013).

  23. 23.

    Dunning, D. In Theory and Explanaiton in Social Pscyhology (eds Gawronski, B. & Bodenhausen, G. V.) 108–131 (Guilford, 2015).

  24. 24.

    Feldman, L., Myers, T. A., Hmielowski, J. D. & Leiserowitz, A. The mutual reinforcement of media selectivity and effects: testing the reinforcing spirals framework in the context of global warming. J. Commun. 64, 590–611 (2014).

  25. 25.

    Kim, K. S. Public understanding of the politics of global warming in the news media: the hostile media approach. Public Underst. Sci. 20, 690–705 (2011).

  26. 26.

    Lupia, A. & McCubbins, M. D. The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1998).

  27. 27.

    Lupia, A. Communicating science in politicized environments. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 14048–14054 (2013).

  28. 28.

    Pasek, J. It’s not my consensus: motivated reasoning and the sources of scientific illiteracy. Public Underst. Sci. 27, 787–806 (2018).

  29. 29.

    Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A. & Fielding, K. S. Relationships among conspiratorial beliefs, conservatism and climate scepticism across nations. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 614–620 (2018).

  30. 30.

    Palm, R., Lewis, G. B. & Feng, B. What causes people to change their opinion about climate change? Ann. Am. Assoc. Geogr. 107, 883–896 (2017).

  31. 31.

    McCright, A. M. & Dunlap, R. E. The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010. Sociol. Q. 52, 155–194 (2011).

  32. 32.

    Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J. & Jenkins, J. C. Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US, 2002–2010. Clim. Change 114, 169–188 (2012).

  33. 33.

    Tesler, M. Elite domination of public doubts about climate change (not evolution). Polit. Commun. 35, 306–326 (2018).

  34. 34.

    Bolsen, T. & Druckman, J. N. Do partisanship and politicization undermine the impact of a scientific consensus message about climate change? Group Process. Intergr. Relat. 21, 389–402 (2018).

  35. 35.

    Zhou, J. Boomerangs versus javelins: how polarization constrains communication on climate change. Environ. Polit. 25, 788–811 (2016).

  36. 36.

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

  37. 37.

    Druckman, J. N., Peterson, E. & Slothuus, R. How elite partisan polarization affects public opinion formation. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 107, 57–79 (2013).

  38. 38.

    Kahan, D. M. Climate-science communication and the measurement problem. Adv. Polit. Psychol. 36(S1), 1–43 (2015).

  39. 39.

    Cook, J. & Lewandowsky, S. Rational irrationality: modeling climate change belief polarization using Bayesian networks. Top. Cogn. Sci. 8, 160–179 (2016).

  40. 40.

    Carmichael, J. T., Brulle, R. J. & Huxster, J. K. The great divide: understanding the role of media and other drivers of the partisan divide in public concern over climate change in the US, 2001–2014. Clim. Change 141, 599–612 (2017).

  41. 41.

    Singh, S. P. & Swanson, M. How issue frames shape beliefs about the importance of climate change policy across ideological and partisan groups. PLoS ONE 12, e0181401 (2017).

  42. 42.

    Redlawsk, D. P. Hot cognition or cool consideration? Testing the effects of motivated reasoning on political decision making. J. Polit. 64, 1021–1044 (2002).

  43. 43.

    Nisbet, E. C., Cooper, K. E. & Garrett, R. K. The partisan brain: How dissonant science messages lead conservatives and liberals to (dis) trust science. Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Sci. 658, 36–66 (2015).

  44. 44.

    Wood, T. & Porter, E. The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence. Polit. Behav. (2016).

  45. 45.

    van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A. & Maibach, E. Scientific agreement can neutralize politicization of facts. Nat. Hum. Behav. 2, 2–3 (2018).

  46. 46.

    Jern, A., Chang, K.-M. K. & Kemp, C. Belief polarization is not always irrational. Psychol. Rev. 121, 206–224 (2014).

  47. 47.

    Leeper, T. J. & Slothuus, R. Political parties, motivated reasoning, and public opinion formation. Polit. Psychol. 35, 129–156 (2014).

  48. 48.

    Bolsen, T., Druckman, J. N. & Cook, F. L. The influence of partisan motivated reasoning on public opinion. Polit. Behav. 36, 235–262 (2014).

  49. 49.

    Kahan, D. In Culture, Politics and Climate Change (eds Boykoff, M. & Crow, D.) 203–220 (Routledge, London, 2014).

  50. 50.

    Arbuckle, M. B. The interaction of religion, political ideology, and concern about climate change in the United States. Soc. Nat. Resour. 30, 177–194 (2017).

  51. 51.

    Ecklund, E. H., Scheitle, C. P., Peifer, J. & Bolger, D. Examining links between religion, evolution views, and climate change skepticism. Environ. Behav. 49, 985–1006 (2017).

  52. 52.

    Landrum, A. R., Lull, R. B., Akin, H., Hasell, A. & Jamieson, K. H. Processing the papal encyclical through perceptual filters: Pope Francis, identity-protective cognition, and climate change concern. Cognition 166, 1–12 (2017).

  53. 53.

    Schuldt, J. P., Pearson, A. R., Romero-Canyas, R. & Larson-Konar, D. Brief exposure to Pope Francis heightens moral beliefs about climate change. Climatic Change 141, 167–177 (2017).

  54. 54.

    Bolsen, T., Leeper, T. J. & Shapiro, M. A. Doing what others do: norms, science, and collective action on global warming. Am. Polit. Res. 42, 65–89 (2014).

  55. 55.

    Perceptions of Science in America: A Report from the Public Face of Science Initiative (American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2018).

  56. 56.

    Baumer, E. P., Polletta, F., Pierski, N. & Gay, G. K. A simple intervention to reduce framing effects in perceptions of global climate change. Environ. Commun. 11, 289–310 (2015).

  57. 57.

    Mullinix, K. J. Partisanship and preference formation: competing motivations, elite polarization, and issue importance. Polit. Behav. 38, 383–411 (2016).

  58. 58.

    Kahan, D. Fixing the communications failure. Nature 463, 296–297 (2010).

  59. 59.

    Van der Werff, E., Steg, L. & Keizer, K. The value of environmental self-identity: the relationship between biospheric values, environmental self-identity and environmental preferences, intentions and behaviour. J. Environ. Psychol. 34, 55–63 (2013).

  60. 60.

    Howat, A. What ‘We’ Value: The Politics of Social Identities and Group Values (Northwestern Univ., 2018).

  61. 61.

    Kahan, D. M. Misinformation and Identity-Protective Cognition Research Paper No. 587 (Yale Law & Economics);

  62. 62.

    Gubitz, S., Klar, S., Robison, J. & Druckman, J. N. In New Directions in Media and Politics 2nd edn (ed. Ridout, T. N.) Ch. 3 (Routledge, New York, 2018).

  63. 63.

    Wolsko, C., Ariceaga, H. & Seiden, J. Red, white, and blue enough to be green: effects of moral framing on climate change attitudes and conservation behaviors. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 65, 7–19 (2016).

  64. 64.

    Feinberg, M. & Willer, R. The moral roots of environmental attitudes. Psychol. Sci. 24, 56–62 (2013).

  65. 65.

    Adger, W. N., Butler, C. & Walker-Springett, K. Moral reasoning in adaptation to climate change. Environ. Polit. 26, 371–390 (2017).

  66. 66.

    Kahan, D. M., Jenkins-Smith, H., Tarantola, T., Silva, C. L. & Braman, D. Geoengineering and climate change polarization: testing a two-channel model of science communication. Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Sci. 658, 192–222 (2015).

  67. 67.

    Campbell, T. H. & Kay, A. C. Solution aversion: on the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 107, 809–824 (2014).

  68. 68.

    Schuldt, J. P., Konrath, S. H. & Schwarz, N. “Global warming” or “climate change”? Whether the planet is warming depends on question wording. Public Opin. Q. 75, 115–124 (2011).

  69. 69.

    Schuldt, J. P., Roh, S. & Schwarz, N. Questionnaire design effects in climate change surveys: implications for the partisan divide. Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Sci. 658, 67–85 (2015).

  70. 70.

    Moernaut, R., Mast, J. & Pauwels, L. In Handbook of Climate Change Communication Vol. 1 (eds Leal Filho, W. et al.) 215–272 (Springer, Berlin, 2018).

  71. 71.

    Severson, A. W. & Coleman, E. A. Moral frames and climate change policy attitudes. Soc. Sci. Q. 96, 1277–1290 (2015).

  72. 72.

    Drummond, C. & Fischhoff, B. Development and validation of the scientific reasoning scale. J. Behav. Decis. Mak. 30, 26–38 (2017).

  73. 73.

    Oliver, J. E. & Wood, T. J. Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics. (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018).

  74. 74.

    Druckman, J. N. The crisis of politicization within and beyond science. Nat. Hum. Behav. 1, 615–617 (2017).

  75. 75.

    Bollen, K., Cacioppo, J. T., Kaplan, R. M., Krosnick, J. A. & Olds, J. L. Social, Behavioral, and Economic Perspectives on Robust and Reliable Science (Advisory Committee to the National Science Foundation Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, 2015).

  76. 76.

    Jamieson, K. H., Kahan, D. & Scheufele, D. A. The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017).

  77. 77.

    National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine. Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2017).

  78. 78.

    Levine, A. & Kline, R. When does self-interest motivate political engagement? The case of climate change. Climatic Change 142, 301–209 (2017).

  79. 79.

    Cohen, G. L. & Sherman, D. K. The psychology of change: self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 65, 333–371 (2014).

  80. 80.

    Kahan, D. M., Braman, D., Gastil, J., Slovic, P. & Mertz, C. K. Culture and identity-protective cognition: explaining the white-male effect in risk perception. J. Empir. Leg. Stud. 4, 465–505 (2007).

  81. 81.

    Lord, C. G., Ross, L. & Lepper, M. R. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: the effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 37, 2098 (1979).

  82. 82.

    Sherrod, D. R. Selective perception of political candidates. Public Opin. Q. 35, 554–562 (1971).

  83. 83.

    Vidmar, N. & Rokeach, M. Archie Bunker’s bigotry: a study in selective perception and exposure. J. Commun. 24, 36–47 (1974).

  84. 84.

    Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E. & Stokes, D. E. The American Voter (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 1960).

  85. 85.

    Lavine, H. G., Johnston, C. D. & Steenbergen, M. R. The Ambivalent Partisan: How Critical Loyalty Promotes Democracy (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2012).

  86. 86.

    Gerber, A. S. & Green, D. P. Misperceptions about perceptual bias. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2, 189–210 (1999).

  87. 87.

    Pornpitakpan, C. The persuasiveness of source credibility: a critical review of five decades’ evidence. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 34, 243–281 (2004).

  88. 88.

    Lupia, A. How elitism undermines the study of voter competence. Crit. Rev. 18, 217–232 (2006).

  89. 89.

    Sears, D. O. & Whitney, R. E. Political Persuasion (General Learning, Morristown, 1973).

  90. 90.

    Elliott, K. C., McCright, A. M., Allen, S. & Dietz, T. Values in environmental research: citizens’ views of scientists who acknowledge values. PLoS ONE 12, e0186049 (2017).

  91. 91.

    Fiske, S. T. & Dupree, C. Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 13593–13597 (2014).

  92. 92.

    Sleeth-Keppler, D., Perkowitz, R. & Speiser, M. It’s a matter of trust: American judgments of the credibility of informal communicators on solutions to climate change. Environ. Commun. 11, 17–40 (2017).

  93. 93.

    Gauchat, G. Politicization of science in the public sphere: a study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. Am. Sociol. Rev. 77, 167–187 (2012).

  94. 94.

    Rabinovich, A., Morton, T. A. & Birney, M. E. Communicating climate science: the role of perceived communicator’s motives. J. Environ. Psychol. 32, 11–18 (2012).

  95. 95.

    Brewer, P. R. & Ley, B. L. Whose science do you believe? Explaining trust in sources of scientific information about the environment. Sci. Commun. 35, 115–137 (2013).

  96. 96.

    Uscinski, J., Douglas, K. & Lewandowsky, S. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017);

  97. 97.

    Saunders, K. L. The impact of elite frames and motivated reasoning on beliefs in a global warming conspiracy: The promise and limits of trust. Res. Polit. (2017).

  98. 98.

    McCright, A. M., Dentzman, K., Charters, M. & Dietz, T. The influence of political ideology on trust in science. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 044029 (2013).

  99. 99.

    Bullock, J. G., Gerber, A. S., Hill, S. J. & Huber, G. A. partisan bias in factual beliefs about politics. Q. J. Pol. Sci. 10, 519–578 (2015).

  100. 100.

    Sears, D. O. & Lau, R. R. Inducing apparently self-interested political preferences. Am. J. Polit. Sci. 27, 223–252 (1983).

  101. 101.

    McGrath, M. C. Economic behavior and the partisan perceptual screen. Q. J. Polit. Sci. 11, 363–383 (2017).

  102. 102.

    Khanna, K. & Sood, G. Motivated responding in studies of factual learning. Polit. Behav. 40, 79–101 (2018).

  103. 103.

    Prior, M., Sood, G. & Khanna, K. You cannot be serious: the impact of accuracy incentives on partisan bias in reports of economic perceptions. Q. J. Polit. Sci. 10, 489–518 (2015).

Download references


The authors thank J. Bullock and S. Hill for comments. They also thank A.S. D’Urso, S.R. Gubitz, M. Nelsen, K. Ramanathan and R. Xu for research assistance.

Author information


  1. Department of Political Science, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA

    • James N. Druckman
    •  & Mary C. McGrath


  1. Search for James N. Druckman in:

  2. Search for Mary C. McGrath in:


Authors contributed equally to the conceptualization and writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to James N. Druckman.

About this article

Publication history