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We Are Remarkably Stubborn in Our Political Beliefs

Two new studies suggest that, when our ideological assumptions are challenged, we don’t rethink them. Rather, we double down.

By Tom Jacobs


Pope Francis waves to the crowd in Manila, Philippines. (Photo: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Many of us like to think that, when provided evidence that throws our political beliefs into doubt, we would use the opportunity to rethink or modify those views.

In reality, however, our response to such challenges is often to reaffirm those dogmas all the more strongly. The most recent evidence supporting that unfortunate dynamic comes in two newly published studies.

One reports conservative Catholics expressed less concern about climate change if they had read about Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the topic. Another finds that French citizens who feel little concern about environmental matters paradoxically increased their support for nuclear energy after being reminded of an accident at a nuclear power plant.

Why suffer the distress of doubt when you can double down?

In the first study, published in the journal Climatic Change, a research team led by Nan Li of Texas Tech University analyzed results of two nationally representative surveys (2,755 Americans overall) on the issue of climate change. Half were taken one week before the release of the June 18th, 2015, encyclical in which Pope Francis framed combating climate change as an urgent ethical issue. The other half took place about two weeks after.

Why suffer the distress of doubt when you can double down?

Participants were asked whether they considered climate change a serious issue, and whether they felt there was solid evidence that the Earth is getting warmer. They also indicted on a five-point scale how credible they considered the pontiff when he spoke about mankind’s moral obligation to deal with the problem.

“People who were aware of the encyclical held more polarized attitudes towards climate change than those who were unaware of it,” the researchers report. Liberals who had read about the papal statement “expressed heightened concern about climate change,” but conservatives who did so expressed less concern about the threat than their counterparts who were unaware of the document.

“While the Pope’s environmental call may have increased some individuals’ concerns about climate change,” the researchers conclude, “it backfired with conservative Catholics and non-Catholics, who not only resisted the message, but defended their pre-existing beliefs by devaluing the Pope’s credibility on climate change.

“The results suggest that the worldviews, political identities, and group norms that lead conservative Catholics to deny climate change override their deference to religious authority when judging the reality and risks of this phenomenon.”

The French study on support for nuclear power, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, featured 149 people living in a small city between Paris and Bordeaux. Participants first answered two questions about their environmental attitudes, including noting (on a one-to-seven scale) the extent to which they agreed with the statement “Environmental protection is very important to me.”

Half were then asked to briefly describe what thoughts and feelings “the idea of a nuclear accident provokes on you.” The others answered a similar question about dental pain. Finally, all participants responded to 29 statements indicating their attitude toward nuclear energy.

“A nuclear accident reminder led those with positive attitudes towards environmental protection to reduce their support for nuclear energy,” writes a research team led by Leila Selimbegovic of the University of Poitiers. However, “This same reminder led those with relatively negative attitudes towards environmental protection to increase their support for nuclear energy.”

Two additional experiments duplicated this dynamic. According to the researchers, thoughts of a nuclear accident appeared to “threaten the worldviews” of those hostile toward environmentalism, “and therefore led to a compensatory exaggeration of those attitudes.”

As Selimbegovic notes, political attitudes “serve important psychological functions” for the people who hold them, and are thus not easily given up. Changing minds on energy and climate change will require figuring out what specific emotional needs are met by holding tight to such beliefs.