Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Review Article
  • Published:

The evidence for motivated reasoning in climate change preference formation

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Similar content being viewed by others

References

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Guess, A. & Coppock, A. Does counter-attitudinal information cause backlash? Results from three large survey experiments. Br. J. Polit. Sci. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123418000327 (2018).

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  44. Wood, T. & Porter, E. The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence. Polit. Behav. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9443-y (2016).

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

  61. Kahan, D. M. Misinformation and Identity-Protective Cognition Research Paper No. 587 (Yale Law & Economics); https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3046603

  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. 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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

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

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  96. Uscinski, J., Douglas, K. & Lewandowsky, S. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017); https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.328

  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. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053168017717602 (2017).

  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).

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  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).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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

Corresponding author

Correspondence to James N. Druckman.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Druckman, J.N., McGrath, M.C. The evidence for motivated reasoning in climate change preference formation. Nature Clim Change 9, 111–119 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0360-1

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0360-1

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing