Messages about the urgency of climate change that depict harms to people in other countries, or even just other parts of the same country, often backfire, says a new study. Researchers discovered that "motivated reasoning,” the kind that reinforces your pre-existing beliefs, kicks in when viewers are confronted with tales of doom and gloom. Then a cognitive shortcut — namely, “how much is this person like me?” — tells the viewer how much they should care about a given harm.

All donations matched! Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

Basically, when confronted with information that runs counter to our foundational beliefs (e.g., fossil fuels are good and the EPA is a “job killing organization”) viewers tend to use their xenophobia to short-circuit their ability to follow logically to the most reasonable conclusions ("Maybe we should do something about all these carbon emissions!"). 

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.