Climate change and pluralistic ignorance

This is interesting:

80–90% of Americans underestimate the prevalence of support for major climate change mitigation policies and climate concern. While 66–80% Americans support these policies, Americans estimate the prevalence to only be between 37–43% on average.

In a paper1 published in Nature last August, Gregg Sparkman, Nathan Geiger & Elke U. Weber document a form of pluralistic ignorance, a situation in which the minority position on a given topic is wrongly perceived to be the majority position or the other way around.

The study of cognitive dissonance around climate change perceptions is not new, but in the sample studied in the paper, this misperception is highly robust, being present for all the climate policies assessed, and true across the whole country. Americans in every state and of all major demographics are 20% or more off in their estimates of support for all climate policies.

Fig 1. Op cit. The red line represents the true prevalence

The authors ellaborate on the possible sources of misperception:

  • Those who are less likely to support these policies (conservatives) are more likely to underestimate climate policy support by a greater degree
  • People may anchor on more conservative historic levels of political attitudes, failing to update estimates to match current public opinion
  • Local norms, such as the political ideology of those in one’s state, and the number of climate protests one might observe in their state, are also linked to their misperceptions
  • Many liberals experience “false uniqueness” whereby they falsely assume that their own opinions are less common than they really are
  • Unexplored (uncontrolled) potential effects of media consumption.

There are many psychological factors that are plausible contributors to the misperceptions documented in the paper, and warrant future research.

Pluralistic ignorance presents at least two major hurdles for climate action.

  1. It undermines people’s willingness to discuss the issue and thus obstructs organizing around it.
  2. Erroneously enlarged perceptions of the opposition’s numbers should increase conformity pressures to oppose climate policy, diminishing motivation and political pressure to pursue these essential climate goals.

A perceived popular consensus around climate change may be key to reducing polarization around climate change. In the absence of a perceived consensus polarization may thrive. If so, these misperceptions represent be a self-fulfilling prophecy: one where underappreciated levels of support for climate policy inhibit support for climate solutions needed, and undermine nascent efforts at substantive change.

Addressing a collective action problem like climate change requires individuals to recognize the problem and to engage in coordinated actions. Collective action problems pose a difficult challenge as individuals are less likely to act when there are others who standby and do nothing.

Our perceptions about the world, including the social world, are shaped by society and can be thought of as part of a “social reality”. Whether or not these perceptions are accurate, they can shape our actions and beliefs, including our expectations or judgment of others. The role of second order beliefs (our beliefs about others’ beliefs) are increasingly highlighted as important contributors to and intervention point for contemporary social problems.

Reading the paper I would say that our tortured psychology plus the tricky mathematics of rationality studied in detail by game theorists is a sure recipe for pessimism. We will/would need much higher doses of high quality education and a lot of investment in mechanism design to face our present collective challenges. Internet and the information economy was our hope, but we’ve lost more than 20 years in what seems to be sort of Jevons Paradox (pending to be named) of information & knowledge.


(1) Sparkman, Gregg, Nathan Geiger, and Elke U. Weber. ‘Americans Experience a False Social Reality by Underestimating Popular Climate Policy Support by Nearly Half’. Nature Communications 13, no. 1 (23 August 2022): 4779.

Featured Image: We all think individually that we – personally – are the only ones who cares. Via The sense of social influence: pluralistic ignorance in climate change: Credit Shirin Ørberg

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