Climate Change: Does Experience Shape Beliefs? Or Is It Vice Versa?

January 12, 2014

People’s views on climate change, whether believers or deniers, can be strongly entrenched and fiercely defended. But how do people’s views on climate change develop in the first place? Does personal experience with potentially climate change-related events (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts) shape people’s views on climate change (“experiential learning”), or do prior beliefs inform people’s interpretations of such events (“motivated reasoning”)? This intriguing chicken-or-egg question has recently been investigated in a paper by Myers and colleagues.

The authors surveyed the climate change views of a group of Americans in 2008 and again in 2011 and found that both types of learning occur over time. Interestingly, the main factor that influenced which type of learning occurred was people’s engagement with the climate change issue. People who were highly engaged with the issue were more likely to use motivated reasoning, whereas people who were less engaged were more likely to use experiential learning. This is a very important finding given that approximately 75% of Americans display low engagement with the idea of climate change. Anyone attempting to convince them of the reality of climate change would therefore be advised to base their arguments on the subject’s personal experience.


Myers T, EW Maibach, C Roser-Renouf, K Akerlof, AA Leiserowitz (2013) The relationship between personal experience and belief in the reality of global warming. Nature Climate Change 3:343-347