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Uncertainty, scepticism and attitudes towards climate change: biased assimilation and attitude polarisation


  • Adam Corner


  • Lorraine Whitmarsh
  • Dimitrios Xenias


‘Scepticism’ in public attitudes towards climate change is seen as a significant barrier to public engagement. In an experimental study, we measured participants’ scepticism about climate change before and after reading two newspaper editorials that made opposing claims about the reality and seriousness of climate change (designed to generate uncertainty). A well-established social psychological finding is that people with opposing attitudes often assimilate evidence in a way that is biased towards their existing attitudinal position, which may lead to attitude polarisation. We found that people who were less sceptical about climate change evaluated the convincingness and reliability of the editorials in a markedly different way to people who were more sceptical about climate change, demonstrating biased assimilation of the information. In both groups, attitudes towards climate change became significantly more sceptical after reading the editorials, but we observed no evidence of attitude polarisation—that is, the attitudes of these two groups did not diverge. The results are the first application of the well-established assimilation and polarisation paradigm to attitudes about climate change, with important implications for anticipating how uncertainty—in the form of conflicting information—may impact on public engagement with climate change. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Suggested Citation

  • Adam Corner & Lorraine Whitmarsh & Dimitrios Xenias, 2012. "Uncertainty, scepticism and attitudes towards climate change: biased assimilation and attitude polarisation," Climatic Change, Springer, vol. 114(3), pages 463-478, October.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:climat:v:114:y:2012:i:3:p:463-478
    DOI: 10.1007/s10584-012-0424-6

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Lynn Frewer & Steve Hunt & Mary Brennan & Sharron Kuznesof & Mitchell Ness & Chris Ritson, 2003. "The views of scientific experts on how the public conceptualize uncertainty," Journal of Risk Research, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 6(1), pages 75-85, January.
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    Cited by:

    1. Dan M. Kahan, 2013. "Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection," Judgment and Decision Making, Society for Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 8(4), pages 407-424, July.
    2. Xenias, Dimitrios & Whitmarsh, Lorraine, 2013. "Dimensions and determinants of expert and public attitudes to sustainable transport policies and technologies," Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Elsevier, vol. 48(C), pages 75-85.
    3. Amanda Hinnant & Roma Subramanian & Rachel Young, 2016. "User comments on climate stories: impacts of anecdotal vs. scientific evidence," Climatic Change, Springer, vol. 138(3), pages 411-424, October.
    4. Whitmarsh, Lorraine & Nash, Nick & Upham, Paul & Lloyd, Alyson & Verdon, James P. & Kendall, J.-Michael, 2015. "UK public perceptions of shale gas hydraulic fracturing: The role of audience, message and contextual factors on risk perceptions and policy support," Applied Energy, Elsevier, vol. 160(C), pages 419-430.
    5. Uehleke, Reinhard, 2016. "The role of question format for the support for national climate change mitigation policies in Germany and the determinants of WTP," Energy Economics, Elsevier, vol. 55(C), pages 148-156.
    6. Christian Harlos & Tim C. Edgell & Johan Hollander, 2017. "No evidence of publication bias in climate change science," Climatic Change, Springer, vol. 140(3), pages 375-385, February.
    7. Rachel A. Howell & Stuart Capstick & Lorraine Whitmarsh, 2016. "Impacts of adaptation and responsibility framings on attitudes towards climate change mitigation," Climatic Change, Springer, vol. 136(3), pages 445-461, June.
    8. Amelia Sharman, 2013. "Mapping the climate sceptical blogosphere," GRI Working Papers 124, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

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