Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 02:57 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 02:57 | SYDNEY

Why do you believe that, and not this?


Sam Roggeveen


25 November 2010 10:41

Think about any argument you've ever had in your life, and ask yourself: how many of them ended with one of the parties saying, 'you know what, you're right. I'm all turned around on the subject!' That almost never happens. Why'

Because rational argument and the weighing of pros and cons, while important, actually play a smaller part than we would like to believe in how we form opinions and make decisions.

I've always thought (just an educated hunch, really) that people who have strong political beliefs and opinions tend to construct their identity around those beliefs — their sense of themselves becomes deeply intertwined with their views on, say, global warming or the threat of Islamist terrorism. That's why it is so difficult and so rare for politically engaged people to change their minds about their core views — because it would actually force them to reconstruct their identity to some degree.

Just this morning I read something (h/t Sullivan) which suggests that this gets it backwards. According to David Roberts, identity comes first, and beliefs follow:

Beliefs tend to be reverse engineered, as it were: People tend to construct an identity around what they (and their tribe) do. That suggests that they will only construct a different identity when they start doing different things.

So imagine the same guy who rejected human-caused climate change in the poll. Imagine that bike riding were made convenient and useful enough that he started doing it. Imagine that his neighbors started getting solar panels, to the point that he felt pressured to do it, and he became a power producer. Imagine he's in the military and his platoon started insulating their tents and carrying solar water purifiers.

Next thing you know, he's a guy who uses solar power and rides a bike. His behavior has changed, so he's telling a different story about himself. That new story, that new identity -- the guy who rides a bike and uses solar power -- is much more likely to incorporate climate change concern than the previous one.

In other words, Gore may have had it exactly backwards. Belief doesn't come first; action comes first. Changing people's behavior -- in small, incremental, but additive ways -- is the best way to open their minds to the science. It all comes down to change on the ground. Climate hawks need to get smart about driving behavior change wherever they can. Those behavior changes will pull changes in consciousness in their wake.

Photo by Flickr user Un2tresPorMi, used under a Creative Commons license.