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People deny a problem when they dislike the solution, study finds

Nov. 7, 2014
Courtesy of Duke Univesity
and World Science staff

Glob­al warm­ing de­nial­ists are of­ten mo­ti­vat­ed by dis­like of the gov­ern­ment regula­t­ions of­ten pro­posed to solve the prob­lem—not so much the na­ture of the prob­lem it­self, a study sug­gests.

The study con­cludes that for many types of prob­lems, peo­ple will as­sess ev­i­dence based on wheth­er they view its pol­i­cy im­plica­t­ions as de­sir­a­ble. If not, then they tend to de­ny the prob­lem even ex­ists.

Lib­er­als as well as con­ser­va­tives were found guilty of that. For ex­am­ple, gun-control ad­vo­cates par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the study were more likely to down­play the fre­quen­cy of vi­o­lent home break-ins when gun-control laws were em­pha­sized as a so­lu­tion.

The re­search­ers call this “so­lu­tion aver­sion.”

“The cure can be more im­me­di­ately threat­en­ing than the prob­lem,” ex­plained Troy Camp­bell, a doc­tor­al can­di­date at Duke Uni­vers­ity Fuqua School of Busi­ness in North Car­o­li­na and co-author of the stu­dy. It ap­pears in the No­vem­ber is­sue of the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

“Rec­og­niz­ing this ef­fect is help­ful be­cause it al­lows re­search­ers to pre­dict not just what prob­lems peo­ple will de­ny, but who will likely de­ny each prob­lem,” added co-author Aar­on Kay, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the school.

The re­search­ers con­ducted three ex­pe­ri­ments with sam­ples 120 to 188 par­ti­ci­pants on three dif­fer­ent is­sues: cli­mate change, air pol­lu­tion that harms lungs, and crime.

Par­ti­ci­pants in the ex­pe­ri­ment, in­clud­ing both self-identified Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats, read a state­ment as­sert­ing that glob­al tem­per­a­tures will rise 3.2 de­grees in the 21st cen­tu­ry. They were then asked to eval­u­ate a pro­posed pol­i­cy so­lu­tion to ad­dress the warm­ing.

When the pol­i­cy so­lu­tion em­pha­sized a tax on car­bon emis­sions or some oth­er form of gov­ern­ment regula­t­ion, which is gen­er­ally op­posed by Re­pub­li­can ide­ol­o­gy, only 22 per­cent of Re­pub­li­cans said they be­lieved the tem­per­a­tures would rise at least as much as in­di­cat­ed by the sci­en­tif­ic state­ment they read.

But when the pro­posed pol­i­cy so­lu­tion em­pha­sized the free mar­ket, such as with in­no­va­tive green tech­nol­o­gy, 55 per­cent of Re­pub­li­cans agreed with the state­ment. For Democrats, the same ex­pe­ri­ment recorded no dif­fer­ence in be­lief, re­gard­less of the pro­posed so­lu­tion to cli­mate change.

The re­search­ers found lib­er­al-leaning people showed a si­m­i­lar so­lu­tion-aver­sion in an ex­pe­ri­ment in­volv­ing vi­o­lent home break-ins. When the pro­posed so­lu­tion called for loos­er ver­sus tighter gun-control laws, those with more lib­er­al gun-control ide­olo­gies were more likely to down­play the fre­quen­cy of vi­o­lent home break-ins.

“We should not just view some peo­ple or group as an­ti-sci­ence, an­ti-fact or hyper-scared of any prob­lems,” Kay said. “In­stead, we should un­der­stand that cer­tain prob­lems have par­tic­u­lar so­lu­tions that threat­en some peo­ple and groups more than oth­ers. When we real­ize this, we un­der­stand those who de­ny the prob­lem more and we im­prove our abil­ity to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate with them.”

Camp­bell added that so­lu­tion aver­sion can help ex­plain why pol­i­tical di­vides be­come so in­trac­ta­ble.

“We ar­gue that the pol­i­tical di­vide over many is­sues is just that, it’s pol­i­tical,” Camp­bell said. “These di­vides are not ex­plained by just one par­ty be­ing more an­ti-sci­ence, but the fact that in gen­er­al peo­ple de­ny facts that threat­en their ide­olo­gies, left, right or cen­ter.”

The re­search­ers not­ed there are ad­di­tion­al fac­tors that can in­flu­ence how peo­ple see the pol­i­cy im­plica­t­ions of sci­ence. Ad­di­tion­al re­search us­ing larg­er sam­ples and more spe­cif­ic meth­ods would pro­vide an even clear­er pic­ture, they said.


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Global warming denialists are often motivated by dislike of the government regulations often proposed to solve the problem—not so much the nature of the problem itself, a study suggests. The study concludes that for many types of problems, people will assess evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as desirable. If not, then they tend to deny the problem even exists. Liberals as well as conservatives were found guilty of that. For example, gun-control advocates participating in the study were more likely to downplay the frequency of violent home break-ins when gun-control laws were emphasized as a solution. The researchers call this “solution aversion.” “The cure can be more immediately threatening than the problem,” explained Troy Campbell, a doctoral candidate at Duke University Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina and co-author of the study. It appears in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Recognizing this effect is helpful because it allows researchers to predict not just what problems people will deny, but who will likely deny each problem,” added co-author Aaron Kay, an associate professor at the school. The researchers conducted three experiments with samples 120 to 188 participants on three different issues: climate change, air pollution that harms lungs, and crime. Participants in the experiment, including both self-identified Republicans and Democrats, read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century. They were then asked to evaluate a proposed policy solution to address the warming. When the policy solution emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, which is generally opposed by Republican ideology, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the scientific statement they read. But when the proposed policy solution emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans agreed with the scientific statement. For Democrats, the same experiment recorded no difference in their belief, regardless of the proposed solution to climate change. The researchers found liberal-leaning individuals exhibited a similar aversion to solutions they viewed as politically undesirable in an experiment involving violent home break-ins. When the proposed solution called for looser versus tighter gun-control laws, those with more liberal gun-control ideologies were more likely to downplay the frequency of violent home break-ins. “We should not just view some people or group as anti-science, anti-fact or hyper-scared of any problems,” Kay said. “Instead, we should understand that certain problems have particular solutions that threaten some people and groups more than others. When we realize this, we understand those who deny the problem more and we improve our ability to better communicate with them.” Campbell added that solution aversion can help explain why political divides become so divisive and intractable. “We argue that the political divide over many issues is just that, it’s political,” Campbell said. “These divides are not explained by just one party being more anti-science, but the fact that in general people deny facts that threaten their ideologies, left, right or center.” The researchers noted there are additional factors that can influence how people see the policy implications of science. Additional research using larger samples and more specific methods would provide an even clearer picture, they said.