Essays on Motivated Reasoning in the Face of Climate Change
Motivated reasoning, the tendency to seek and interpret information in ways that confirm preexisting beliefs, values, and identities, is one of the most important explanations for why people form polarizing beliefs. Understanding why people engage in this form of reasoning and finding ways around it...
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|Summary:||Motivated reasoning, the tendency to seek and interpret information in ways that confirm preexisting beliefs, values, and identities, is one of the most important explanations for why people form polarizing beliefs. Understanding why people engage in this form of reasoning and finding ways around it is vital for any information-driven society, especially now in light of climate change and global pandemics.
The cumulative dissertation presented here consists of five essays that explore motivated reasoning from different angles. The first essay lays the theoretical foundation for the following chapters. It combines the latest research in behavioral economics into a conceptual framework that sheds light on the role of mechanisms underlying the development of beliefs and decision-making, such as categories, identities, narratives, values, and worldviews, which can be united under the collective term mental models. This conceptual framework helps to understand the various drivers of motivated reasoning, such as protecting one's identity or values, maintaining certain narratives or worldviews, or simply using mental shortcuts, i.e., heuristics, to maintain limited mental capacities. Essays two and five directly measure motivated reasoning and examine the factors involved. The third and fourth essays, however, look at the consequences of motivated reasoning. While the former examines why people persist in sea-level rise (SLR) threatened areas and form unrealistic migration aspirations, the latter addresses the prevention of polarizing beliefs about COVID-19 vaccines that cause people to delay or refuse vaccination.
In the first essay, written by Maximilian N. Burger, Björn Vollan, and myself, we discuss the urgency of systematic change in our society. This is needed to develop a civilization that can thrive within ecological boundaries without depleting the bases of life for future generations. We outline the potential of behavioral economics — the pairing of individual-centered research (behavioral) with the science of the allocation of scarce resources (economics) — to contribute to this transformation. We argue that behavioral economics has, up to this point, mainly contributed to the understanding and realization of marginal changes, not deep sustainable transformations. For example, hard rules (i.e., command-and-control policies) and incentives (i.e., price-based mechanisms) may be effective in regulating specific actions but fail to alter underlying values and, hence, rarely promote a change in general behavior. We present a conceptual framework that builds on current research in behavioral economics and combine it with insights from other behavioral sciences to explore far-reaching changes in human behavior.
In the second paper, I present the results of four studies conducted in the United States, Solomon Islands, Bangladesh, and Vietnam that measure the motivated reasoning of people exposed to SLR risks. For this study, I conducted N = 885 online surveys in the United States that included respondents living in less exposed, landlocked counties as well as respondents living in counties exposed to flooding, coastal erosion, and storms exacerbated by SLR. In the Solomon Islands (N = 478), Bangladesh (N = 229), and Vietnam (N = 366), I led small research teams of 6 to 10 people to conduct face-to-face surveys with respondents living in areas vulnerable to risks associated with SLR. I developed a flexible, survey-based design for measuring motivated reasoning that allows for comparison across subjects and contexts. Respondents are presented with two equally true but conflicting pieces of information and asked which (if any) should be ignored by people like themselves. Although the information pieces are adapted to the local context of the four study sites, they always follow the same pattern: one highlighted SLR risks for the local area, and the other highlighted adaptation options or alternative explanations for increased risks of coastal flooding and erosion. The results reveal strong discrepancies in motivated reasoning across countries. In the United States, we find the expected polarization along partisan lines, with one group downplaying SLR risks and the other exaggerating them. In contrast, respondents in the Solomon Islands almost exclusively exaggerated SLR risks, and almost no motivated reasoning was measured in Vietnam. In the Bangladesh study, we find similar patterns of motivated reasoning as in the United States, but with much weaker polarization. Overall, these stark differences across countries suggest that the reasons why people engage in motivated reasoning in the face of SLR risks are multifaceted, complex, and depend on the local socio-political context. I argue that motivated reasoning is more likely to be politically conditioned than the result of cognitive traits or personality types.
The third essay, written by Ivo Steimanis, Björn Vollan, and myself, takes a close look at the survey data from Bangladesh (N = 247) and Vietnam (N = 377) to examine why people are staying in coastal regions threatened by SLR, such as the Ganges and Mekong deltas. To better understand societal resilience in risky environments, we analyzed people’s attachment to their place of living, their willingness to take risks, and how these change in response to extreme weather events. Our findings confirm that most people prefer staying. Yet crucially, we find that (i) self-reported experiences of climate-related hazards are associated with increased risk aversion and place attachment, reinforcing people’s preferences to stay in hazardous environments; (ii) people with hazard experiences are more likely to aspire to move to high-income countries, arguably beyond the reach of their capabilities; and (iii) changes in aspirations to move abroad are connected to the changes in risk aversion and place attachment. The fact that preferences are associated with cumulative experiences of hazards and interact with aspirations to move to high-income destinations may contribute to our understanding of why so many people stay in hazardous environments. For example, co-evolving preferences might prolong the time people remain in hazardous regions where they are increasingly exposed to immediate impacts and gradual impacts of climate-related hazards, increasing the risk for socioeconomically marginalized households to eventually lose the ability to move abroad. We argue that there is a strong need for developing anticipatory governance regimes to identify affected communities at risk of (further) falling into poverty and being exposed to an increasing number of climate-related hazards.
The fourth essay, written by Maximilian N. Burger, Ivo Steimanis, and myself, assesses whether (i) debunking vaccination myths or (ii) highlighting the benefits of being vaccinated decreases vaccination hesitancy. We conducted a preregistered survey experiment with N = 1,324 participants in Germany in May/June 2021. This was followed by a series of emails reinforcing the information treatments in the survey experiment, and finally, a follow-up survey was conducted three months later in September 2021 to determine whether participants got vaccinated. We find that one-time exposure to information, irrespective of the content, does not increase vaccination intentions in the survey experiment. However, communicating vaccination benefits over several weeks increased the likelihood of taking action toward vaccination by 9 percentage points, which translates into a 27% increase compared to the control group. Debunking vaccination myths had no significant effect. Our findings suggest that if soft governmental interventions such as information campaigns are employed, highlighting benefits should be given preference over debunking vaccination myths. Furthermore, it seems that repeated messages affect vaccination action while one-time messages might be insufficient, even for increasing vaccination intentions. Moreover, our explorative results suggest that providing relatively small monetary incentives could help to further increase vaccination rates. Furthermore, our study underscores the importance of testing interventions outside of survey experiments that are limited to measuring vaccination intentions – not actions – and immediate changes in attitudes and intentions – not long-term changes.
The fifth and final essay explores the question of whether German farmers are as polarized concerning a sustainable transformation of agriculture as they are perceived to be by the general public. We conducted N = 110 online surveys with farmers from Hesse, Germany, to explore whether they are prone to engage in motivated reasoning when confronted with information that challenges their farming practices. While we find evidence of motivated reasoning among both conventional and organic farmers, organic farmers appear to be much more ideologically polarized than conventional farmers. Furthermore, we carried out N = 821 online surveys with respondents from the general public and asked them to predict how farmers answered our questions. In contrast to public expectations, farmers in our sample are far less polarized, and conventional farmers, in particular, are much more open-minded and concerned about the environment than the public expects. Our results suggest that farmers are strongly misperceived by the public and that a sustainable transformation of agriculture in Germany is not hindered by the motivated reasoning of farmers. Furthermore, our results make it clear that a binary distinction between organic and conventional farming methods overlooks important differences among conventional farmers. Many of the farmers we surveyed already use largely organic practices, but are not certified as such. A more accurate classification that distinguishes not only between organic certified and non-certified farmers could help policymakers target their regulations more accurately to promote sustainable agriculture.|
|Physical Description:||240 Pages|