Information Aversion

People will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts: is this linked to why some people reject global warming? John Baez thinks so.

Azimuth

Why do ostriches stick their heads under the sand when they’re scared?

They don’t. So why do people say they do? A Roman named Pliny the Elder might be partially to blame. He wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

That would be silly—birds aren’t that dumb. But people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts. It seems irrational to avoid information that could be useful. But people do it. It’s called information aversion.

Here’s a new experiment on information aversion:

In order to gauge how information aversion affects health care, one group of researchers decided to look at how college students react to being tested for a sexually transmitted disease.

That’s a subject a lot of students worry about, according to Josh Tasoff, an economist at Claremont Graduate University who…

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Temperatures make our global warming opinions change like the weather

The 2010 blizzards in the northeastern US they called the 'Snowpocalypse' buried this Maryland street, drove senators to deride the idea of global warming, and Columbia University researchers to look at how temperature influences our outlook on climate change. Image credit: BKL, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

The 2010 blizzards in the northeastern US they called the ‘Snowpocalypse’ buried this Maryland street, drove senators to deride the idea of global warming, and Columbia University researchers to look at how temperature influences our outlook on climate change. Image credit: BKL, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

On June 23, 1988, record 38°C temperatures in Washington DC provided a persuasive backdrop for NASA’s Jim Hansen to force the greenhouse effect into our consciousness. At least one of the senators hearing his landmark congressional testimony was well aware that the heat would help sear the message into people’s minds. Tim Wirth has since admitted turning off the air conditioning and opening the windows the night before, so Jim’s sweat would be obvious for the TV cameras.

That baking hearing likely played on how we think in a way psychologists had just started to untangle in the previous decade. That is, how we judge things is often dominated by a simple sense of our personal experience, rather than a deeper analysis of evidence available to us. “Numerical judgments are hard, so we grasp at whatever more tangible we can find,” Elke Weber, from Columbia University in New York, explained.

Identifying this tendency to answer an easier question, known as substitution, helped psychologist Daniel Kahneman win a Nobel Prize for Economics. And when it comes to our opinion on climate change, recent temperatures are especially important, Elke and her colleagues have shown over the last three years.

In 2010, a rather different extreme in the US capital drew Elke’s husband Eric Johnson to study this effect. Then, two massive snowstorms struck in one week in February, an event that was dubbed the ‘Snowpocalypse’, leading senators to deride the possibility of climate change. His team therefore looked at whether local weather information gets falsely substituted for global climate in three studies in the US and Australia.

Across three studies they asked people their opinions on global warming and whether the temperature on the day of the study was warmer or cooler than normal. Those who thought that day was warmer than usual believed more in and had greater concern about global warming than people who thought that day was colder than usual. They would also donate more money to a global-warming charity if they thought that day seemed warmer than usual. Read the rest of this entry »

Building climate adaptation on flooded fields

Emma Tompkins from the University of Southampton has been studying why people do things that help their whole community adapt to climate change. Credit: International Institute for Sustainable Development

Emma Tompkins from the University of Southampton has been studying why people do things that help their whole community adapt to climate change. Credit: International Institute for Sustainable Development

Even as many governments seem too paralysed to act on climate change, some people and organisations are beginning to adapt to its challenges and threats. And there are cases where their efforts are providing benefits that can be enjoyed by their communities, without receiving any financial reward. While such acts currently don’t get much attention, Emma Tompkins from the University of Southampton, UK, and Hallie Eakin from Arizona State University think they’re fairly common. Emma told me that private actions like farmers allowing their fields to flood to protect more developed areas downstream could be worth millions. “The cost of adapting to climate change could be significantly reduced if we can harness that, and encourage greater provision of these public goods,” she said.

When Hallie and Emma first met, they were surprised to find that they both knew cases where people were acting in this way. Emma had heard tell of farmers in the UK and France who let their fields be flooded to protect others. Meanwhile Hallie knew that small coffee growers in Mexico deliberately encouraged a greater variety of plants to increase soil stability and reduce the risk of landslides in an area prone to hurricanes. “We then became increasingly interested and started finding evidence it wasn’t just the two of us having Read the rest of this entry »