Climate change and severe weather 15 November 2012

Views on climate change skewed by ‘false consensus’

You’re a bad judge of what others are thinking, and their views on climate change are no exception.
Two young mothers talking over coffee - the false consensus effect

We tend to socialise with people who think in similar ways to ourselves. This leads to the False Consensus Effect - which is our tendency as individuals to overestimate how common our own opinions are. Credit: iStockphoto

Over the last few years, debate on the existence and causes of climate change has become increasingly vitriolic and divisive, with arguments often resting on claims and counter-claims about where the majority of Australians stand. So where do Australians stand, and is this related to where they think other Australians stand?

These are some of the questions we set out to explore in a series of annual national surveys, commencing in 2010. In that 2010 survey we asked 5,036 people: `Which of the following statements best describes your thoughts on climate change?’ People selected one of the following four statements: `I don’t think that climate change is happening'; `I have no idea whether climate change is happening or not'; `I think that climate change is happening, but it’s just a natural fluctuation in Earth’s temperatures’; ‘I think that climate change is happening, and I think that humans are largely causing it’.

Next, people were asked to “Try and guess the percentage of Australians who would think the following ways about climate change”. Our respondents then put a percentage figure next to each of the same four statements.

Our results, recently published by the British journal Nature Climate Change, revealed that nearly 90% of people think climate change is indeed happening, although this majority is divided about whether they think natural fluctuation or human activity is the culprit. Only a very small percentage (less than 6%) said it wasn’t happening at all. The remaining 4% said they didn’t know one way or the other.

But a curious thing happened when we asked them to estimate what Australians in general think. As a general rule, people thought their own opinion of climate change was the most prevalent opinion in the community, regardless of what that opinion is.

So what drives these misperceptions in community sentiment?

The results we found might well be curious, but they’re not altogether unexpected, at least not for the social researcher. The False Consensus Effect is a term used to describe our tendency as individuals to overestimate how common our own opinions are. It happens when you ask people about gun control, the death penalty, and racism: in fact a whole range of issues.

So why does it happen? For one thing, we tend to socialise with people who tend to think very much like we do about things, and the opinions of those we spend time with are likely to come to mind when we are asked about other people’s thoughts (social researchers call this the availability heuristic, but it could as aptly be described as the barbeque conversation effect). We also need to feel our opinions have validity, and part of that validity stems from knowing we’re not alone in thinking the way we do. This ‘need for social support’ can be amplified when we hold opinions or beliefs that we suspect are unpopular, disliked, or that we ourselves are uncertain about.

We observed the false consensus effect for all types of opinion, but it was especially marked for those who denied the existence of climate change altogether. These people represented only 6% of the ‘popular vote’, but as a group they thought over 40% of the rest of Australians thought as they did. When we repeated the survey in 2011, this estimate jumped to almost 50%, even though the proportion of people actually holding this opinion remained relatively stable at 7%.

But it wasn’t just those who denied the existence of climate change who overestimated how prevalent this rare view is. Every group overestimated it.

Why? Social and political groups, economic structure, cultural values – and especially the media – are all indicators on which we base intuitive estimates of public sentiment. But these information sources can be misleading. For instance, systematic biases in media reporting (such as the journalistic tradition of giving ‘equal weight to both sides of the story’) can lead to collective distortions about the popularity of certain opinions.

Opinions matter; our surveys tell us that people holding these different opinions differ appreciably in what they are actually doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And those who deny the existence of climate change altogether score lower on these measures than any other group.

Many factors determine our opinions on climate change. They may reflect social identity needs, cultural values, or political identity and allegiances. These in turn may shape our opinions of what others in our community think, that is, our estimates on the consensus reflect our own thinking on the matter.

But our perception of what others think is a dynamic process: perceptions can reinforce our own patterns of thinking – we also found that those who initially had strong levels of false consensus were less likely to have changed their opinions 12 months later.

Plus, our perceptions convince us to think differently when we think the winds of change are in the air. When people sense their opinion is on the rise (even if a minority opinion) they are more likely to be outspoken about it. Those who think their opinion is on the wane are more hesitant, fearing they will face social censure or derision. This can propagate the disproportionate column inches and airplay given to minority opinions.

Others have found that manipulating perceptions of scientific consensus can change lay opinions. Worryingly, there’s little reason to think perceptions of community consensus work differently.

Opinions are important, and reflecting community opinion accurately is just as important. Leaving unchallenged myths of widespread doubt about the existence of climate change will entrench sceptical orientations and undermine adaptive responses to climate change.

Zoe Leviston is a social scientist in Perth in the Social and Economic Science Program at Australia’s national science research agency, the CSIRO. Her work was carried out with colleague Iain Walker, and Sarah Morwinski from Dresden University of Technology.

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