Is Scientific Evidence or Subjective Experience a More Effective Way to Convince Someone of a Scientific Fact?

Although almost all scientists agree that global warming is occurring, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, only half of American adults report holding such a belief. Given that people seem not to simply consult expert opinion, what variables influence people’s belief?

In our research, we find that people’s scientific beliefs can be influenced by their subjective experience, even when that experience provides them with no diagnostic information. For example, we find that when people feel warmer—either because they are out in the hot sun or even because they are in an overheated room—they believe in global warming more. Our results suggest that warmth influences belief because it causes people to more vividly imagine what a hot world would be like. The clarity of this simulation, in turn, makes people more likely to believe in global warming. In another experiment, we found that participants who were led to experience thirst by eating pretzels were more likely to agree that desertification and drought will increasingly threaten people’s ability to find fresh drinking water. This further validates the finding that people will judge a certain condition of the world as more likely if it fits with what they are experiencing at that moment.

Although our research documents how subjective experience can influence scientific belief, it is important to note that our studies do not compare the role of subjective experience with the role of scientific evidence. If people were presented with scientific evidence in our studies, it is likely that the evidence would also influence people’s belief.

Let us consider two factors that may make subjective experience an especially effective method for convincing people of a scientific fact.

First, subjective experience is most likely to influence beliefs that are informed by a process of imagination or simulation. Our results suggest that people’s belief in global warming is informed by imagining what a hot world would be like. If people are unable to simulate an outcome or process, however, then subjective experience may play less of a role. For example, the belief that HIV turns into AIDS is unlikely to be informed by someone’s subjective experience.

Second, if people are motivated not to believe scientific evidence because it challenges their broader belief system, then subjective experience may be more effective in “sneaking under the radar.” We found that feeling warm influences liberals and conservatives similarly. If our participants were presented with scientific evidence, however, it is very likely that those participants who were motivated not to believe in global warming would doubt the evidence that was presented to them.

Although there is no doubt that scientific evidence is an important method for convincing people of scientific facts, our research suggests that factors that facilitate the ability to picture what that future event would look and feel like may at times exert a strong (if not stronger) effect.

Jane Risen is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Category: Q&A


One Response

  1. Ted Krasnicki says:

    The first sentence of this article betrays the title question: “almost all scientists agree that global warming is occurring”. What does she mean by “almost all”, and what scientific evidence does she cite for that claim?
    Just last month an important study in Nature Geoscience has cast doubt on the exaggerated claims of the IPCC about the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. It seems that there is quite a bit of bias in that statement “almost all”.
    If anything, Risen’s research shows how subjective bias affects one’s understanding of what constitutes a scientific “fact” and how such a “fact” is to be interpreted.
    Which, of course, raises the whole issue about whether the social sciences including psychology are sciences in the first place. The hallmark of a modern science is its predictive ability. According to this behavioural study, does it mean that when I am hot I will believe that the world is getting warmer? Exactly what does this study predict about me or other individual human beings?
    If the social sciences in general have little (if any) predictive ability, then they are not sciences, but pseudo-sciences.

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