Cornell Law Review Volume 102 Issue 6

How People Update Beliefs About Climate Change: Good News and Bad News

People are frequently exposed to competing evidence about climate change. We examined how new information alters people’s beliefs. We find that people who are not sure that man-made climate change is occurring, and who do not favor an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, show a form of asymmetrical updating: They change their beliefs in response to unexpected good news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be less than previously thought) and fail to change their beliefs in response to unexpected bad news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be greater than previously thought). By contrast, people who strongly believe that manmade climate change is occurring, and who favor an international agreement, show the opposite asymmetry: They change their beliefs far more in response to unexpected bad news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be greater than previously thought) than in response to unexpected good news (suggesting that average temperature rise is likely to be smaller than previously thought). The results suggest that exposure to varied scientific evidence about climate change may increase polarization within a population due to asymmetrical updating. We explore the implications of our findings for how people will update their beliefs upon receiving new evidence about climate change, and also for other beliefs relevant to politics and law.

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