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How physical cues subtly affect our opinions — including those on global warming

drought-stricken land
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
Most Americans now believe global warming is real.

Most Americans — 69 percent — believe that global warming is real and that it’s having an effect on weather in the United States, according to a new poll [PDF] released today.

Erratic and extreme weather — record heat waves, droughts, floods and snowfalls — seem to be the convincing factors.

“Most people in the country are looking at everything that’s happened; it just seems to be one disaster after another after another,” Anthony A. Leiserowitz of Yale University, one of the researchers who commissioned the new poll, told New York Times reporter Justin Gillis. “People are starting to connect the dots.”

This poll’s findings are good news for climate scientists, who have often expressed frustration with the public’s limited understanding of the science behind global warming.

I, too, would like to think that this poll’s findings reflect a growing scientific literacy among the American public. But I’m not so sure.

Just this week French psychologist Nicolas Guegen reported online in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that people (French students in this case) are more likely to express beliefs in global warming if they’re sitting in the presence of a dead, rather than a live, ficus tree.

Furthermore, the more dead trees in the room, the stronger the beliefs about global warming.

Yes, we apparently are that suggestable.

As Gueguen points out in his study’s background information, other scientists have found that when people are asked about global warming on days they believe are hotter than normal, they are more likely to express a greater concern about the issue — and are more likely to donate to a global warning charity — than if they thought the day was colder than usual. (That study involved U.S. and Australian citizens.) Subtly priming participants with “heat” words, such as boil or Equator, has also been shown to lead to stronger beliefs in global warming. (Another study involving Americans.)

Indeed, physical cues can get us to do all sorts of things without our realizing it. Last year, a team of French researchers found that when a few “ocean” cues — sailor figurines, napkins with a picture of a boat, and sea-related poetry (!) — are scattered about in a restaurant, more people order fish from the menu.

So, although I’d like to think that increased scientific literacy is leading more people to realize what’s happening to the Earth’s climate — and why — I suspect that at least some of the responses in this new American poll may have less to do with increased knowledge and more to do with the fact that the survey was taken in March.

That’s right when much of the country — including Minnesota — was in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave.

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Comments (1)

The science of communications

What George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication demonstrated with this exercise is what political scientists call push polling. But notice how they never use the words "man-made" when using "global warming," and they ask about "weather" instead of climate. That comes in later polls.

It's a very interesting look into how the academics are trying to figure out the memes and poll-tested language to use to get the public to accept government-imposed solutions to the severe weather they've been experiencing.