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Human Behavior and Scientific/Political Beliefs

Woman smiling as she sorts her recycling: ID 53438563 © Auremar |
Woman recycling some household waste

[Originally published as Do “Climate Change” Skeptics Behave in a More “Sustainable” Way?]

A while back, I ran across an interesting study well worth discussing. Like most studies that try to understand human behavior, its results are incredibly tentative. Nevertheless, they are interesting, and they also are consistent with a trend that I have noticed among my colleagues and friends.

The researchers wanted to probe how a person’s belief in human-induced “climate change” affects his or her personal behaviors. They recruited 600 people from Amazon Mechanical Turk (I had never heard of it until reading the study), and assessed both their beliefs about human-induced climate change as well as their behavior when it came to four types of “pro-environmental” activities: recycling, using public transportation, purchasing environmentally-friendly consumer products, and utilizing reusable shopping bags.

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One very important aspect of this study is that the researchers didn’t just do this once. They did it seven times throughout one year. That way, they could track beliefs and behaviors as they ebbed and flowed. Unfortunately, it is hard to keep people interested in a study like this, so while they started with 600 participants, only 291 actually completed all seven evaluations. However, some participants missed just a few evaluations, so an average of 413 participants were evaluated in each of the second through seventh analyses.

Some of the results were not at all surprising. Based on people answering several questions about climate change, they found that they could generally categorize their participants as either “Highly Concerned,” “Cautiously Worried,” or “Skeptical.” However, they found that those beliefs did change a bit depending on the weather, with people trending more towards “Highly Concerned” during the warmer parts of the year. As the authors note, this is consistent with a lot of other studies. They also found that the “Highly Concerned” group was much more likely to advocate for government policies to combat climate change.

The surprising result, however, was that the “Skeptical” group was significantly more likely to engage in three of the four pro-environmental behaviors listed above than were the “Cautiously Worried” or the “Highly Concerned.” The “Skeptical” group was more likely to take public transportation, purchase environmentally-friendly consumer products, and utilize reusable shopping bags. The “Highly Concerned” and “Skeptical” groups recycled at pretty much the same frequency, but the “Cautiously Worried” recycled at a lower frequency.

Now, of course, the authors list several limitations to their study, and it is certainly possible that this surprising result is a consequence of one of those limitations. However, it is at least consistent with my observations. In general, those I know who have a more conservative outlook tend to be the ones who are more skeptical of human-induced climate change. They are also the ones who tend to be more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.

The authors offer a few possible explanations for their surprising result. Here are two of the more interesting:

Perhaps [the “Highly Concerned”] engaged in moral licensing, whereby their concern about climate change psychologically liberated them from engaging in (and reporting) pro-environmental behavior. Or, perhaps the “Highly Concerned” felt that federal policies were the more effective means of addressing climate change (vs. individual pro-environmental behaviors).

I personally think the explanation is simpler. I tend to engage in “pro-environmental” behaviors because they generally make sense. I recycle because it is a reasonable way to reduce waste. I take public transport when I can because it is generally less expensive and reduces traffic congestion. I tend to buy environmentally-friendly consumer products because it is an easy way to support a healthy environment. I don’t tend to utilize reusable shopping bags, but my wife does. I engage in other pro-environmental behaviors (such as installing LED lighting when it makes sense) because ultimately, it saves money and once again, is an easy way to protect the environment.

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Such behaviors have nothing to do with concern about human-induced climate change. They simply make sense. Based solely on my observations (which could be very skewed), those who tend to concentrate on things that make sense are also significantly more likely to be skeptical of human-induced climate change.

Dr. Jay Wile

Written by Jay Wile

As a scientist, it is hard for me to fathom anyone who has scientific training and does not believe in God. Indeed, it was science that brought me not only to a belief in God, but also to faith in Christianity. I have an earned Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in nuclear chemistry and a B.S. in chemistry from the same institution.

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