Overcoming Climate Change Ignorance is Hard

Public opinion on climate change can seem staggeringly difficult to comprehend, and the findings in recent study by a group of Columbia researches illustrate exactly how malleable those opinions are.

People’s belief in and concern about global warming depended on whether the local temperature on the day of the study seemed warmer or colder than usual. Such increases in belief and concern also produced higher donations to a global-warming charity. We interpret this result as attribute substitution, in which an easily accessible judgment (the current day’s local temperature) is used in place of a more complex and less accessible one (global temperature trends).

Next time a politician points to snow in April as a sign global warming is a hoax, remember it’s not because of their ignorance and political opportunism, it’s simply because of a legitimate cognitive bias. (Ok, some tiny, tiny, tiny, piece of it due to legitimate cognitive bias.)


Regulatory Focus and Policy Preferences

Regulatory focus is one of the more intriguing motivational constructs found in psychology literature. The idea is that people tend to be motivated either by the desire to maintain security, fulfill their responsibilities, and avoid negative outcomes (“prevention-focus”), or by the desire to achieve positive outcomes and avoid missed opportunities (“promotion-focus”).  These constructs are commonly found in education research relating to study strategies, goal pursuit, and information processing, but two recent papers examine how regulatory focus affects a person’s policy preferences.

In the first paper Gale Lucas and Dan Molden looked at how regulatory focus influences our preferences for various types of government intervention.

Two studies examined how chronic concerns with fundamental needs for security (i.e., prevention) and growth (i.e., promotion) relate to public policy attitudes. In samples of both college students and nationally representative US households and across a variety of policy areas, stronger prevention concerns predicted support for government intervention to maintain public and personal safety, whereas stronger promotion concerns predicted support for government intervention to ensure opportunities for growth and enrichment.

Their findings are noteworthy because they remind us there are psychological factors driving our political preferences that don’t strictly break down along the red-blue barrier. Both Democrats and Republicans will at times claim to be the parties of “safety” or “growth.”

In the second study Jennifer Bolder and Tory Higgins examined how regulatory focus affects our propensity to make a “risky” or “conservative” choice about economic reform:

Two studies examined the impact of self-reported use of promotion-related (i.e., eagerness) and prevention-related (i.e., vigilance) strategies when making “risky” or “conservative” decisions about economic reform under good, average, or poor economic conditions. Consistent with regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1997, 1998, 2000), in both studies strategic vigilance was associated with making a conservative choice, whereas strategic eagerness was associated with making a risky choice.

Once again, when viewed through the lens of regulatory focus, preferences seem to have little relation to ideology. “Conservative” economic decisions could be either left-leaning (don’t cut spending in a reccession) or right-leaning (don’t raise taxes in a recession).  Similalry, “risky” decisions can be left-leaning (single-payer healthcare) or right-leaning (abolish corporate income tax).

Simplifying the Value-Added Debate

One reason the fight over education reform has produced a startlingly small amount of insight, understanding, and well-intentioned debate is that both sides continue to dance around the big questions.  Those opposed to value-added measures merely cite specific examples where accountability proves inaccurate and costly. Those in favor of using metrics to rate teachers cite specific examples where ignoring them is costly.  The focus on arbitrary counter-examples pulls the debate away from where it should be.

There are two key questions at the heart of the issue.  First, does the efficiency that results from rewarding teachers to bring about a certain results (in this case, test scores) outweigh the inefficiencies — cases where good teachers are punished or test scores are not reflective of student learning? Second, is this an equitable way to create change? Does it harm a certain set of teachers or students?

The debate should not stray from the two key points of utility and equity. Until the talking heads, administrators, op-ed writers, and researches are willing to talk about education reform through the lens of these two issues, the debate will continue to be a trite political back-and-forth where both sides demonize each other instead of discussing the merits of their positions.

Voters Aren’t Very Bright

There’s bad news for those hoping technology would soon allow voters to make informed and unbiased decisions. A new paper in PLoS examined how a live “worm” — a line measuring the emotional reaction of undecided voters — influenced perceptions during a 2010 UK Prime Ministerial debate.  The results are not pretty.

Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers doctored the broadcast, overlaying their own version of the worm. Half the participants saw a version in which the worm was biased in favour of Brown, the other half saw a version in which it was biased in favour of Clegg.

The killer finding is that the participants’ own subsequent perception of the debate was influenced by the manipulated worm. In the Brown-biased group, 47 per cent felt Brown had won (vs. 35 per cent who thought Clegg and 13 per cent who thought Cameron). In contrast, in the Clegg-biased group, 79 per cent felt he’d won (vs. 9 per cent for Brown and 4 per cent for Cameron).

Perhaps most worryingly, the biased worm also affected participants’ subsequent claims about who was their preferred prime minister. A related further detail is that the worm’s influence exceeded participants’ perceptions of the worm’s movement.

The paper is subtitled “A Potential Distortion of Democracy.” One of many.

Because the Media is Easily Manipulated

Imagine Kobe Bryant is quietly a huge proponent of gay marriage who stays up late wondering when this terrible civil rights violation will end. Wouldn’t it be clever of him to get caught making an anti-gay slur, draw a ton of attention to the issue, and force the Lakers and the NBA to do a bunch of good stuff in order to clean up the PR mess?

NBA players should start publicly slandering inner-city youth. A bunch of organizations might decide to show solidarity by donating money to help poor kids.

Jon Stewart Facepalm

The official statement of the FBI agent in charge of the online-poker fraud indictments:

These defendants, knowing full well that their business with U.S. customers and U.S. banks was illegal, tried to stack the deck,” said Janice Fedarcyk, FBI assistant director-in-charge. “They lied to banks about the true nature of their business. Then, some of the defendants found banks willing to flout the law for a fee.  The defendants bet the house that they could continue their scheme, and they lost.

Somewhere, someplace, there’s a press assistant who is way too pleased with himself.

Why Do We Let Congressmen Change Their Votes?

The hilarious tale of how Nancy Pelosi nearly snookered Republicans into passing a budget that reflects their true policy preferences brings up an interesting question. Why do we let the two parties continuously change the votes of their members until they have the electoral-performance-maximizing total? It encourages votes based on electoral politics instead of candidates true beliefs. A politician’s vote will always be influenced by their next election, but that influence is growing because we allow congressmen to get their preferred policy outcome without having to vote for it.