Are We Losing the War on Climate Change Cinema?

Views on climate change tend to have the unfortunate quality of being influenced by exposure to partisan media rather than through careful, unbiased research. This is not a quality unique to climate change, but environmental issues do seem to generate a large number of prominent movies relative to other public policy disputes. There’s not a steady release of mainstream films about the value (or atrocity) of food stamps.

The proliferation of such media poses a problem for environmentalists only to the extent that a) a larger audience encounters climate-skeptic films relative to environmentalist films, or b) skeptic films have a relatively stronger impact. I’ll ignore the first point for now, but with regard to the second point a new study suggests that there may be something to worry about.

The study, which was conducted by Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck, examined the impact of different climate change films on the environmental attitudes of Austrian collge students. In Greitemeyer’s initial experiment a skeptic film, “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” induced stronger negative attitudes toward the environment, but a climate change-affirming film, “Children of the Flood,” did not lead to stronger positive attitudes. The results suggest that there may be something about climate skeptic films that makes them more powerful.

A follow up experiment dug a bit deeper into how climate change films influence viewers. This time the climate change-affirming film was a documentary, “Six Degrees Could Ghange the World,” rather than a fictional film about a world ravaged by climate change. (The skeptic film, a documentary titled, “The Climate Swindle: How the Eco-Mafia Betrays Us,” was also different from the film used in the initial experiment.) Prior to viewing the films participants completed a survey that aimed to gauge their baseline level of environmentalist behavior. After viewing the films participants responded to three sets of questions that measured their mood, their general propensity to consider future consequences, and their apathy about the environment.

The results of the second experiment largely confirmed the findings from the initial experiment. Even when controlling for prior views on the environment, the skeptic film had a significant negative impact on concern for the environment, but the climate change affirming film did not have a significant positive impact on concern for the environment. Interestingly, a follow-up analysis revealed that the reason the skeptic films were effective was that they altered the degree to which people considered future consequences. In fact, after viewing the films a person’s reported consideration of future consequences was a better predictor of their concern for the environment than the type of film they saw. While the study comes with all the caveats of an experiment restricted to Austrian college students, the findings suggest that climate change skeptic films do in fact have a stronger impact, but only to the extent that they do more to influence people’s consideration of future consequences.

So what, if anything, does this mean for the fight against climate change? Obviously it’s bad news if films produced by climate skeptics have a stronger impact. On the other hand, the importance of considering future consequences may at least hint at some worthwhile countermeasures. One possibility is that simple nudges to induce more foresight, even in domains that have nothing to do with the environment, will lead to greater consideration of the future and an increase in concern for the environment. For example, getting people to think more about saving for retirement may change how they think about the future in such a way that they become more environmentally conscious.

The study also helps explain why, economically speaking, environmentalism functions as a “luxury good” (i.e. as countries get richer they “consume” more environmentalism.) The standard reasoning is that richer countries care more about the environment because they can afford to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the planet. People in America can afford to buy green lightbulbs or pay taxes on the carbon they use. People living in Bangladesh cannot.

But Greitemeyer’s study tells a slightly different story about the connection between wealth and environmentalism. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck you don’t expend a lot of energy thinking about long-term issues, and thus you don’t spend as much time considering future consequences. On the other hand, if you’re relatively wealthy it’s not uncommon to think about what you’ll be doing in 30 years. And so the poor might not be less concerned with climate change simply because they can’t afford it, they might be less concerned because they don’t generally think about the distant future. Such an explanation doesn’t open the door for any particular panacea, but it ought to strengthen the case for economic growth as a long-term solution to climate change. In the meantime, people should probably be more wary of crackpot climate skeptic films.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
Greitemeyer, T. (2013). Beware of climate change skeptic films Journal of Environmental Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.06.002


The Link Between Political Views and…Video Sharing Behavior?

From a new paper by Bradley Okdie:

We examined whether participants’ political beliefs significantly predicted likelihood of forwarding political videos and the characteristics of the targets of these forwards. Participants viewed one of four political advertisements that varied in terms of the candidate’s political party (Democrat or Republican) and the emotion that the advertisement evoked (Positive or Negative). Democrats were more likely to forward advertisements when they experienced positive emotional arousal, and the targets of the forwards were not especially similar to Democrat participants in terms of political orientation or personality. Conversely, Republicans were more likely to forward advertisements when they experienced negative emotional arousal, and the targets of the forwards were highly similar to the Republican participants in terms of political orientation and personality. This is consistent with previous research (e.g., Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003) indicating that conservatism is associated with greater negative affect sensitivity and insularity in communication.

What Makes Being Persistent So Frustrating?

Farhad Manjoo has a fun story about how people engage (or disengage) with online articles. In short, a lot of people don’t read much of the article, and even those who share a link often haven’t read the whole thing. Manjoo concludes that in the face of competing alternatives it’s too easy to lose interest.

With ebooks and streaming movies and TV shows, it’s easier than ever, now, to switch to something else. In the past year my wife and I have watched at least a half-dozen movies to about the 60 percent mark. There are several books on my Kindle I’ve never experienced past Chapter 2. Though I loved it and recommend it to everyone, I never did finish the British version of the teen drama Skins. Battlestar Galactica, too—bailed on it in the middle, hoping to one day jump back in. Will I? Probably not.

Maybe this is just our cultural lot: We live in the age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat.

What Manjoo is describing is the recent increase in the opportunity cost of persisting in a specific activity. At each moment there’s more and more stuff out there that might be better. By the time you get through the first paragraph of an article you’ll have 10 unread tweets, a text message, and those 23 open tabs that you haven’t looked at yet. Even if something is promising, if it doesn’t wow you right away it’s easy to be drawn into something else. Thirty years ago this was less of a problem because there were fewer ways to entertain yourself and switching activities required more than clicking on a different browser tab.

Manjoo’s article brought to mind a forthcoming paper (pdf) by Penn’s Robert Kurzban, Angela Duckworth, Joseph Kable, and Justus Myers on the sensation we generally refer to as “effort.” The theory they lay out seeks to answer two questions. Why do we experience effort as something negative, and why does effort lead cognitive performance to decline over time?

Many existing theories are based on somewhat vague notions of motivation or the depletion of an actual resource (e.g. “ego-depletion“). Kurzban et al. approached the issue from a more computational standpoint. They reasoned that because cognitive resources are limited, when we decide to dedicate more resources to a particular task we engage in a series of opportunity cost calculations to decide if it’s worth it. This cost is then experienced as the negative sensation we refer to as mental effort, and as a consequence we re-allocate cognitive resources away from the current task.

Real-world tasks that evoke a sensation of effort lead to favorable outcomes in the long run –Many of the persisting on difficult tasks such as writing, doing math problems, and so on – yet the phenomenology is unpleasant rather than pleasant. Further, these sensations seem to be systematically related to performance reductions. Why do these “good” things feel “bad”?

We have tried to sketch one sort of solution to this puzzle. The central element of our argument is that the sensation of effort is designed around a particular adaptive problem and its solution, simultaneity and prioritization. Because some systems, especially those associated with executive function, have multiple uses to which they can be put, the use of these systems carries opportunity costs. We propose that these costs are experienced as “effort,” and have the effect of reducing task performance. This connects the sensation of effort to other qualia, explaining the valence of the experience as a cost of persisting.

For example, reading a book in a barren room will feel more pleasant than reading a book with your smartphone right next you. The standard explanation would be that you have to fight the temptation to check your email, but Kurzban et al. claim something slightly different is happening. Because reading prevents you from checking your email, having your phone nearby makes the act of reading more costly. These costs give rise to stronger negative feelings of “effort” (e.g. frustration, boredom, etc.), and that negativity lead to a reallocation of cognitive resources — for example, you may decide to take a one minute break to check your email. In other words, the presence of an alternate activity does not merely create a conscious temptation that must be overcome, it can lead you to have an increasingly negative experience with what you’re already doing.

It’s a subtle difference, but the manner in which it changes the direction of causality is interesting. The standard way a person thinks about a situation is that when a task feels hard it makes you tempted to do something else. What Kurzban et al. are saying is that when a task feels hard it’s actually a result of an cognitive process that already determined you should think about doing something else. The urge to do something else causes the negative reaction to the task, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the Kurzban et al. theory that suggests the behavior Manjoo’s describes will abate. After all, the number of distractions grows every single day. It’s also disconcerting to be told there’s yet another way your experiences with something can be influenced by the presence of extraneous things.

On the other hand, the basis for these negative sensations is that you’ve calculated it’s worthwhile to start doing something else, and thus they’re not inherently a bad thing. If there’s something more important to do, switching tasks is a good decision. Whether or not these cost-benefit calculations are accurate continues to be open to debate. Technology skeptics have long lamented that we’re shortening our attention spans to achieve short-term gains and ignoring the long-term costs. It may seem worthwhile to read 10 news articles instead of finishing a book, but in the long run it may be better to have gotten through the whole book.

I’m relatively agnostic about all of this. Our decisions to persist or abandon a task are generally based on rational calculations, but it’s certainly posible that the reasoning behind such calculations is short-sighted and harmful. It’s also possible that we only think the reasoning is short-sighted because we’re judging optimal behavior for 2013 based on what was optimal behavior in 1995. Perhaps shorter attention spans will allow you to better adapt to the way the world works in 30 years. It’s impossible to know what behaviors will be best in the future, but what we do know is that the empirical data and some psychological theory suggest we’ll continue to be drawn to whatever it is that we’re not doing.
Kurzban, R., Duckworth, A., Kable, J.W., & Myers, J. (2013). An opportunity cost model of subjective effort and task performance Behavioral and Brain Sciences

What if 501(c)4 Organizations Had to Disclose Their Donors?

The IRS kerfuffle has increased interest in the tax code by about 5700%, and one outcome is that people are starting to take a closer look who is being granted exemptions. Dylan Matthews has thoughtful piece on 501(c)4 organizations, the groups at the center of the scandal, but instead of focusing on taxes, Matthews thinks the real issue is disclosure:

501(c)4s can accept unlimited donations and don’t have to tell a soul from whence they came. 527s, including super-PACs, have to file quarterly reports disclosing donors. That’s why so many super-PACs have attached 501(c)4s, which can collect unlimited donations and then donate them in turn to the super-PAC, as Fred Wertheimer explained to me last week.

The key question, then, in considering what should come next for 501(c)4s, is not “should groups like this have to pay taxes.” They’re never going to have to pay taxes. It’s whether they should have to disclose their donors.

Mathews goes on to lay out the different arguments. One on hand, it doesn’t seem like the 501(c)4 designation serves a particular purpose, and the ability of 527s to use them to effectively launder donations should be stopped. On the other hand, you to also need to be really really careful about the potential to stifle free speech in a detrimental way.

As Neil Irwin explained last week, there’s a long history of IRS persecution of LGBT-oriented charity groups, including denying one group tax-exempt status and making another demonstrate that it would not “encourage or facilitate homosexual practices or encourage the development of homosexual attitudes and propensities by minor individuals.” Making all charitable groups 501(c)3s could open them to that kind of scrutiny, particularly for any that deal with controversial topics, which could be far worse than anything that’s happened in the current scandal.

Matthews chooses to focus on the broader philosophical conflict and thus he takes a long-run view of the issue. He essentially wants to know which policy will leave the country in the best shape 30 years from now. But there’s also the question of the immediate practical impact of increased disclosure. Does giving people information about donors actually impact voting behavior?

A new study from Conor Dowling of the University of Mississippi provides one data point. Dowling’s study was based on a 2010 ad by American Crossroads, an organization founded by Karl Rove, that aired in the Missouri senate race. The ad attacked Democratic candidate Robin Carnahan by attempting to link her to President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and “failed” Democratic policies.

After participants viewed the ad, Dowling and his co-author, Amber Wichowsky, placed them in one of five experimental conditions. The first group was shown the names, occupations, and donation amounts for American Crossroads’ five biggest donors. Groups 2-4 were shown an article about the large independent expenditures being made in the race, but Group 3 read additional information about the financial interests of American Crossroads donors (e.g. $25 million from “corporate executives” in the oil industry), and Group 4 read additional information about how American Crossroads didn’t have to disclose donors because of their 501(c)4 status. The 5th group only watched the ad, and there was also a control group that never watched the ad in the first place. At the end of the experiment, all participants rated how likely they were to vote for Carnahan.

The researchers found that the disclosure with the largest impact was the article describing why there was no disclosure. Participants in this condition gave Carnahan support that was significantly stronger than the support given by participants who only watched the attack ad, and their overall level of support was about the same as participants who never saw the ad. In other words, being told about how 501(c)4s didn’t have to disclose their donors completely negated the effect of the ad. The disclosure involving the top 5 donors also had a relatively strong impact, although the difference in support between participants who saw the 5 donors and participants who only saw the ad was not statistically significant (p =.64). A follow up experiment using an ad in which a Republican candidate was attacked largely replicated the findings, although in the thins experiment learing that disclosure is not required led Democrats to increase support for the Democratic candidate even when the Democrat was the one on the attack.

The straightforward explanation for the findings is that disclosure decreases support because people have negative associations with the specific people or groups who tend to fund these organizations. But the fact that the legality of non-disclosure may play a key role suggests that people are generally disgusted with the system, and when something reminds them of it — for example, an ad — they will develop a negative attitude toward that thing. People just don’t want to think about the fact that much of what we do on a daily basis is for money.

To get back to Matthews’ original discussion, I think “free speech vs. money-in-politics” is one of the more sane debates in our political system. Neither side takes positions that are completely indefensible. There’s no Michelle Bachman arguing she should be able to slip $2 million in cash in the trunk of a somebody’s car. It’s clear that money in politics is an issue worth watching, but if you value freedom very highly, it’s also valid to be concerned that a solution could open the door for costly free speech suppression.

It seems like the future compromise over campaign finance — whether it’s 2, 5, or 25 years from now — will essentially involve an exchange of more freedom for less anonymity. Feel free to donate whatever you want with no strings attached, but everybody’s going to know. If you want to influence public policy, you’ll have to be a public figure. That’s probably our best chance of curtailing the influence of money while also satisfying those who worry we’re becoming a fascist tyranny.
Dowling, C., & Wichowsky, A. (2013). Does It Matter Who’s Behind the Curtain? Anonymity in Political Advertising and the Effects of Campaign Finance Disclosure American Politics Research DOI: 10.1177/1532673X13480828

Why Pundits Cling to Idiotic Theories About Obama’s Power

Political scientists and poli-sci minded journalists have recently upped the snark and condescension aimed those in the media who don’t understand that the president can’t make people do things they don’t want to do. (For good examples, see Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait, and Brendan Nyhan.) The bottom line in all these pieces is that people need to admit that there simply isn’t any secret sauce of leadership, messaging, or glad-handing that will get Republican congressmen to take votes that jeopardized their reelection.

But while Klein, Chait, Nyhan, and Co. thankfully take an axe to ignorant punditry, I think they gloss over a key explanation for why the myth of presidential power is so widespread and so difficult to kill: If the president truly lacks the ability to get important things done, it means the media has failed to uphold it’s most indispensable public responsibility.

At the moment, the cause of Obama’s powerlessness is that members of the opposition party have abandoned the desire to govern in order to ensure their own personal reelections. With an opposition that doesn’t have a modicum of interest in cooperating, there’s nothing Obama can do to pass necessary legislation. In the face of poorly aligned incentives, our political system is floundering.

But the media fancies itself as the guardians of our great democracy, and so if our political system is broken, it’s because the media failed to prevent it from happening. After all, if it’s truly impossible for us to pass climate change legislation, why did our great newspaper columnists not warn us that such an outcome was fast approaching?

To combat the dissonance caused by the realization that they failed to prevent our political system from rotting, pundits will cling to any tangible explanation for Obama’s failure. He just needs to exhibit more leadership, make better speeches, or recreate scenes from popular hollywood films. Publishing these evidence-free analyses may seem like a difficult thing to do, but it’s not as difficult as admitting that you’ve failed at your job and let the country down. And so while may seem absurd to us for Maureen Dowd to suggest that Obama should take advice from an Aaron Sorkin character, to her it’s much less absurd than the alternative, which is that she completely missed the breakdown of our political system as it was happening right under her nose.

How Pharmaceutical Ads Distort Healthcare Markets

It probably doesn’t strike you as strange to see advertisements for prescription drugs. By now, everybody knows that you should “talk to your doctor about Levitra” while “doing more with Lipitor” and getting “Claritin clear.” But if you think about it, it’s odd for an actor being paid by a pharmaceutical company to tell you what medicine to take. The implication is that despite having no medical experience, you should be giving medical advice to your doctor. Granted, there are times when patients should have a strong voice in the specifics of their treatment, but those times are not when patient desires are strictly based on positive branding from a TV commercial.

Given that doctors are likely to frequently deny the ad-induced requests of patients, it’s worth asking how these ads impact the patient experience. For example, does the effect of a pharmaceutical ad persist beyond a patient’s initial request for a drug?

A new study by Benjamin Lewin of the University of Puget Sound suggests that it does. Lewin examined what factors influenced patient satisfaction among people who had gone to the doctor after seeing a form of “direct to consumer advertising” (DTCA). He found that the advertisements had a significant impact on a patient’s experience:

Results indicate that patients who do not receive a prescription when mentioning a DTCA drug are significantly less likely to be satisfied with their physician visit. In contrast, the receipt of a diagnosis has no significant impact on patient satisfaction. Other factors associated with patient satisfaction were whether or not the patient received the exact drug that he or she requested or a different drug, and the specific reason for denial of a prescription for the requested drug. Instead of accepting a doctor’s recommendations and complying without question, patients are now unhappy with their physicians’ decisions when these decisions do not adhere to the patient’s expectations, which are formed by DTCA.

If advertising is influencing patient satisfaction it’s bad news for the healthcare system. First and foremost, it means patient satisfaction is increasingly reliant on outcomes that have nothing to do with patient health. Somebody who ends up less healthy, but who got the drug they asked for, could end up more satisfied than a healthier person who didn’t get what they asked for. Even if it initially leads to more satisfaction, in the long run it’s not beneficial to accept a marginally inferior health outcome in return for the warm feeling you get from doing what the TV said.

When satisfaction becomes disconnected from health outcomes patients may also begin “doctor shopping” for a doctor who will give them what they want. In effect, you have people moving away from doctors who will provide the best medical treatment and toward doctors who will provide the most overall satisfaction. This incentivizes doctors to focus on patient satisfaction at the expense of better health outcomes. If a doctor wants to keep a patient, it might be better for the patient to be 99% cured and get the drug they want than to be 100% cured and not get the drug they want. Obviously doctors aren’t pushovers who do whatever they’re told, but doctors do want to please patients, and at the margin patient desires will influence treatment decisions. The end result is a distortion in the market for doctor services that leads to a decrease in the supply of superior treatment.

Is there anything that can be done about the detrimental effects of pharmaceutical ads? In the U.S. ads are already regulated by the FDA, and though many countries have banned them, you don’t have to be Rand Paul to think that preventing somebody from advertising a medicine is a serious violation of the first amendment. Banning pharmaceutical ads could also be unwise, as they surely allow some people to gain valuable information.

The best solution may actually be what’s already present in Levitra’s ubiquitous ads. The ads say to ask your doctor “about” Levitra, not “for” it. One thing Lewin found was that out of ten different reasons doctors gave for denying a requested drug, “it was’t the right drug for you” led to the most satisfaction. By creating ads that insinuate a drug isn’t for everybody pharmaceutical companies can increase the degree to which people are open to that explanation.

There is one final thing patients can do. Next time you see a TV commercial for a prescription drug, remind yourself that you know nothing about medical treatment and that everybody who made the commercial has a financial interest in your future behavior.
Lewin, B. (2013). Patient satisfaction with physician responses during interactions prompted by pharmaceutical advertisements The Social Science Journal DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2013.03.002

How Does Cable News Influence Climate Change Beliefs?

A new study suggests it’s through the way media coverage affects trust (or distrust) in scientists:

There is a growing divide in how conservatives and liberals in the USA understand the issue of global warming. Prior research suggests that the American public’s reliance on partisan media contributes to this gap. However, researchers have yet to identify intervening variables to explain the relationship between media use and public opinion about global warming. Several studies have shown that trust in scientists is an important heuristic many people use when reporting their opinions on science-related topics. Using within-subject panel data from a nationally representative sample of Americans, this study finds that trust in scientists mediates the effect of news media use on perceptions of global warming. Results demonstrate that conservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening. By contrast, use of non-conservative media increases trust in scientists, which, in turn, increases certainty that global warming is happening.