Research & Insights

Don’t Like The Solution? Make Believe There’s No Problem

In the wake of the announcement that the United States and China have agreed to take major steps to reduce greenhouse emissions contributing to climate change, it may be tempting to believe everyone is ready to applaud this development.

But a number of Americans – and many American political leaders – don’t see this as a necessary agreement at all. To them, there’s no problem to fix.

In light of all the science showing the threats posed by global warming, how is this possible?

New research from Duke University offers a clue. To learn why different political groups have such different levels of support for policies aimed at fixing major problems, researchers Troy H. Campbell and Aaron C. Kay conducted a series of studies. What they found was a phenomenon called “solution aversion” – an occurrence that causes people to downplay problems when the proposed solutions clash with their political worldviews. Rather than accepting an ideologically distasteful solution, “solution-averse” people would rather deemphasize the problem.

In one study focused on climate change, the researchers found that a strong belief in free-market ideology was linked to climate skepticism. Participants read a statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and one of two proposed policy solutions. The first policy was a “green technology” policy, which emphasized using market-based initiatives to encourage companies to cut carbon emissions. The second policy was a government-led regulatory scheme that legally required companies to reduce their carbon output. Respondents were then asked how much they agreed with the IPCC’s assertion that temperatures are predicted to rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century.

Only 22 percent of self-identified Republicans agreed with the IPCC statement assertion after reading the government-led regulatory policy. But that number jumped to 55 percent when they were presented with a market-based green technology solution. Democrats, on the other hand, were generally inclined to accept the IPCC statement regardless of the proposed policy solution.

Campbell and Kay suggest these differences are a result of political values. “Republicans more than Democrats see climate change solutions as a greater threat to the economy, and Republicans’ economic beliefs about climate change policies mediate their skepticism of climate change science,” the study finds.

Knowing that people are likely to downplay the importance of a problem if its proposed solutions threaten their ideological beliefs has important implications for how policy recommendations are framed.

In terms of climate change, for example, the authors note that emphasizing “solutions that favor a more free market policy approach rather than the more popularly discussed restrictive policy approach may lead Republicans to be less skeptical of the available climate change science.”

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, November 2014

Troy H. Campbell and Aaron C. Kay, Duke University

Posted: December 30, 2014
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