Hot study takes a different look at global warming

Booth School professor Jane Risen’s research shows that feeling hot makes people more likely to believe in global warming.

By Benjamin Pokross

With winter weather coming to an end, one U of C professor’s research says the warmth may have unexpected effects on human behavior.

A recently published study by Jane Risen, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business, has found that feeling hot makes people more likely to believe in global warming.

Their previous research into people’s beliefs about global warming focused on the weather, but most experiments were conducted outside. With her newly published research, Risen wanted to try a different approach. “We’re not focused on the weather, we’re focused on the experience of warmth,” she said.

While their first experiment was outside, all the other tests occurred indoors. In all of their original studies they would ask the subject several questions, including a question about global warming.

To control that the results were from the experience of warmth and not simply the thought of heat, they found that telling the subjects “heat-primed” words did not result in an increase in belief, said Risen.

Subjects are not making rational decisions, Risen said, since it was “the experience of warmth instead of the information that warmth might convey” that influenced the subjects’ decisions.

The study, which was published with Clayton Critcher of Berkeley’s Hass School of Business, came out in the January 20 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Risen attributed the results to a psychological effect known as visceral fit. “When you’re in a current visceral state, the current experience is going to affect your belief in future states,” she said.

In a warmer environment, subjects experienced more vividly what the world would look like with the effects of global warming.

Risen also found that the effect worked in relation to thirst; people who had just eaten pretzels were more likely to believe in future droughts.

This research could impact the way that researchers try to explain global warming to the public. Instead of the facts and statistics, Risen said, her research “suggests that it might be more effective to show how this warmth might feel.”