What a Difference a Hurricane Makes for Your Beliefs

What a Difference a Hurricane Makes for Your Beliefs

New Jerseyans more likely post-Sandy to show support for politician running on ‘green’ platform
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Ken Branson
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Anna Mikulak
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Mantoloking
Mantoloking, New Jersey, after Sandy.
 
New Jersey Air National Guard
Extreme weather may have the power to shift people’s attitudes – their first instincts – in favor of environmentally sustainable policies, according to new research.

This research, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that in the wake of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, New Jersey residents were more likely to take climate change more seriously and to show support for a politician running on a “green” platform. They also expressed a greater belief that climate change is caused by human activity.

Back in 2010, psychologist Laurie Rudman asked 269 Rutgers undergraduates what they thought about two fictional politicians, one who favored and another who opposed environmental policies involving tax increases. Rudman and her colleagues, graduate student Meghan McLean and philosopher Martin Bunzl, also asked students whether they believed humans were causing climate change, and probed their “automatic” or “instinctual” attitudes about the politicians.

Though most students said they preferred the green politician, their instinctual preferences suggested otherwise. The automatic-attitudes test indicated that the students tended to prefer the politician who did not want to raise taxes to fund environment-friendly policy initiatives.

Rudman
Laurie Rudman
Rutgers University
Immediately after Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey and New York, while her own house was still cold and dark, Rudman decided to ask those questions again. After finding an internet connection, she posted a notice asking for undergraduates to participate in her survey. This time, she had 318 volunteers. She added questions about how Hurricane Sandy – and Hurricane Irene in 2011 – had affected the students personally.  She found that those who were affected were more likely to favor raising taxes and even sacrificing some personal liberty to deal with environmental issues. The storm had changed their “automatic” attitudes.

“The reason we get this shift between 2010 and 2012 is that so many people were personally affected,” Rudman said. “The university was shut down for a week, so nobody was unaffected, but I had students who had lost their homes, who couldn’t get to school because they were still helping their families or because they couldn’t get gas for their cars.”

Indeed, Rudman found that the more deeply affected the students had been, the stronger their bias in favor of the “pro-green” politician, and the more “pro-green” their automatic attitudes were.

“It seemed likely that what was needed was a change of heart,” Rudman said. “Direct, emotional experiences are effective for that.”

 While they don’t know whether the first group of students would have shown a shift in attitudes after the storms, the researchers believe their findings provide evidence that personal experience is one factor that can influence instinctive attitudes toward environmental policy. If storms do become more prevalent and violent as the climate changes, they argue, more people may demand substantive policy changes.

Waiting for severe storms to shift the public’s opinions on policy changes might be a sobering reality, but Rudman and her colleagues are more optimistic.

“Our hope is that researchers will design persuasion strategies that effectively change people’s implicit attitudes without them having to suffer through a disaster,” Rudman concludes.

Media Contact
Ken Branson
732-932-7084 x633
908-797-2590
Anna Mikulak
202-293-9300