Posted: March 29, 2009
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Article SummaryIn late March of 2009, discussion on the RISKANAL (risk analysis) listserv turned to the psychology of people – including people on the listserv – who are skeptical about global climate change. I had recently dealt with this question in a column for this website on “Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial.” So I posted a comment on the listserv referencing and summarizing the column. The resulting brief dialogue dealt with the motives not just of global warming skeptics but also of global warming supporters. And it led to a further discussion of whether strategic persuasion (on behalf of global warming or any topic) is antithetical to sincerity. I thought it was a good, thoughtful and respectful discussion – worth reprinting here (with the permission of all the participants). After the RISKANAL discussion petered out, I continued to exchange emails (also posted here) with one participant in the dialogue, Stephen L. Brown. Our focus slowly shifted from climate change risk communication to outrage and outrage management – and led to some observations on Steve’s part about outrage that I think are well worth reading, whether you’re interested in global warming or not.

Climate Change
Risk Communication Dialogue

How to tell if skeptics are “in denial”;
Parsing the motives for global warming denial
– and for global warming support;
Strategy versus sincerity in global warming persuasion
(and in persuasion generally)
Excerpts from the RISKANAL listserv, March 24–25, 2009
(plus some follow-up offline correspondence)

[Omitted here, but mentioned below, are earlier posts by Stephen L. Brown, Jim Dukelow, and Tony Cox regarding the psychology of global warming “denialists.” Global warming is sometimes referred to as “AGW” – anthropogenic global warming.]

From: Stephen L. Brown
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 24, 2009

…. In my original post, I speculated that there was a strong correlation between conservative/libertarian politics and being a skeptic about AGW, while a liberal political bent was common in the most vocal advocates of AGW, and asked why. Jim [Dukelow] did not dispute the correlation, and opined that the “denialist community” showed “hostility to regulation of industry and commercial activity” and overlapped the anti-evolution crowd. Perhaps Jim did not intend so, but I thought he implied that corporate greed in the energy and related industries that would be most targeted by proposed AGW mitigation strategies was behind most of the “denialist” activities. I’m not going to get into the anti-evolution issue, as any correlation would more likely (in my opinion) be a result of conservative/anti-evolution association and not causal.

My core hypothesis is that conservatives and libertarians who are suspicious about most large-scale, government-imposed interventions are uncomfortable with the fixes proposed, seeing them as interfering with free markets and imposing high costs on the current populace, especially in the developed countries. Certainly the magnitude of the costs and their influence on the current quality of life can and will be debated, but it seems to me virtually certain that these fixes will make MY quality of life poorer in the short run. I also hypothesize that most of the opposition to the fixes is not driven by greed but instead by ideology, although I would acknowledge that the legitimacy of self-interest is an important component of the conservative/libertarian credo. (I apologize to those who distinguish libertarian ideas from other ideas usually considered conservative; I’m focusing on the areas where these terms overlap.)

The next hypothesis is that being uncomfortable with the fix makes people more likely to dispute the existence of the problem. Knowing that appeals to the gospel according to Friedman are not going to sway the liberal AGW activists, the “denialist community” is encouraged to question the existence of the problem. I’m not saying that this behavior is a conscious strategy, but I think it an easy way of shifting the dialogue from politics to science, which is supposed to be less emotional. It may be especially true for those of us who think of ourselves as scientists, but I see it in the “lay” public, too.

An aside on the issue of “denialist” vs. “skeptic” raised by Tony Cox. I think Tony was objecting to the pejorative tone of “denialist,” which connotes to me someone who just doesn’t want to believe what (s)he at heart knows to be true. I too doubt that such a description fits all of the people who I lumped as “skeptics,” especially when I assign at least a small probability that AGW could be wrong. On the other hand, I think some of the “skeptics” are in denial to the extent they tend to discount evidence for AGW, often because of opposition to proposed fixes….

But this behavior surely applies to the supporters of the AGW science and mitigation proposals. They can find all kinds of issues with data sets and interpretations that argue against AGW, while approaching those that argue for AGW with little skepticism. Here the liberally minded folks tend to invoke the precautionary principle, consciously or not. Because it is possible the polar bear will cease to exist outside zoos, the populations of low-lying islands will be threatened, water supplies will diminish in places where storage in snowpacks is important, and so on, it is important for them to assume the worst and argue for action. Otherwise they would feel guilty about not doing enough to protect future populations of humans and ecological resources who are not able to protect themselves.

I also hypothesize that the pro- and anti-AGW forces are influenced by the phenomenon I think of as, “if you don’t like the messenger, shoot the message.” My conservative/libertarian friends seemed to become hardened in their AGW skepticism as soon as the Al Gore movie appeared. After all, who would trust the message of an airhead liberal? The liberals, on the other hand, distrust any message they see as coming from the venal cabal of the energy industries, their toady consultants, and the right-wing journalists who take their money.

Both sides of the AGW debate are also subject to the bugaboo of us all: a tendency to support a position more strongly than justified by the available information because of our previous history of support. It’s just plain embarrassing to admit we were wrong.

Now that I have offended pretty much everyone, let me close with an exhortation to try and separate arguments about the what of AGW from the what to do about it.

From: Peter M. Sandman
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 25, 2009

Re the recent dialogue over climate change “denialists” and especially Steve Brown’s comment yesterday, it is worthwhile distinguishing three reasons for questioning global warming:

number 1
Intellectual denial is the position of climate change skeptics and contrarians. Some members of this group have reviewed the evidence and decided that the case for a global warming crisis is weaker than the majority of experts now say it is. Others just smell a rat. Their intuition tells them that the crisis is overblown, and that the expert consensus to the contrary may be just an artifact of herd mentality or political allegiance
number 2
Strategic denial is the position of those who may privately believe that climate change is real and serious, but have reasons for pretending otherwise – paid spokespeople for organizations that have a vested interest in denying the significance of climate change, for example, or people whose social set looks askance at lefty activism. Strategic denial is rarer than we usually imagine. Those with ulterior reasons to deny (or affirm) the significance of climate change usually manage to convince themselves that they’re on the right side.
number 3
Psychological denial is the position of people so upset or so hopeless about climate change they can’t bear to think about it: people “in denial,” not “deniers” or “denialists.” Psychological denial often masquerades as intellectual denial for those who are experiencing it. To climate change activists it often looks like strategic denial.

Even more often, psychological denial is mistaken for apathy. People in or near denial will tell you they’re just not interested. But unlike apathy, denial is unconsciously motivated. If I’m really “just not interested” in your issue, that’s apathy – your issue didn’t make my list. If I can’t bear to get interested, if the issue threatens my sense of how the world works or arouses emotions I cannot tolerate, that’s denial.

For members of this list who are concerned about climate change and hopeful of arousing similar concern in others, this distinction may be crucial. The appropriate messaging for apathy and the appropriate messaging for denial are in some ways antithetical. If the diagnosis is apathy, the treatment is to get me interested, to arouse more concern. If the diagnosis is denial, trying to arouse more concern will backfire, propelling me more deeply into denial. The treatment for denial is to help me bear the concern I’m already feeling.

I have posted an essay on my website on “Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial” The essay argues that climate change apathy is certainly still important but diminishing, whereas climate change denial is probably still small but growing. It outlines the two sources of climate change denial with the greatest impact: cognitive dissonance and intolerable emotion. And it discusses six things activists do that exacerbate denial:

  • Fear-mongering
  • Guilt-tripping – including what I call “the stupid fight over whether global warming is anthropogenic”
  • Ideology-based hostility to technological solutions
  • Neglect of global warming adaptation
  • Over-emphasis on bad news
  • Trashing the “enemy” and all arguments that question the validity of the climate change hypothesis

I’m not sure if my essay has a constituency – on this list or elsewhere. Climate change skeptics and contrarians are likely to misread it as claiming that they’re all in denial. It has nothing much to offer them anyway; it’s aimed at the other side. But the other side – climate change activists – may take offense at all the risk communication sins it accuses them of committing. Nor is it a good read for people in denial; telling people in denial that they’re in denial tends to push them more deeply into denial. As for the genuinely apathetic, this l-o-n-g essay is sure to increase their apathy!

For those who decide to give it a look anyway, I would welcome comment, whether on this listserv or on my website Guestbook.

Please note that my own belief that global warming is real and serious is grounded neither in evidence nor in faith. I am simply playing the odds, betting that the expert consensus will turn out right (as it usually does) and the contrarians will turn out wrong (as they usually do). I’m also inclined to think that the cost of mistakenly taking climate change seriously, though high, is not as high as the cost of mistakenly neglecting the problem.

From: Steve Long
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 25, 2009

Interesting post and essay.

But, it leaves me in an uneasy position. I still don’t seem to be able to communicate with the people who have data or models or logical arguments, because they ALL seem to be assuming that I am, in some way, dishonest and trying to trick them with my questions and logical inquiries. Maybe an article that helps people who are trying to be objective cope with a highly politicized debate in a constructive manner is more what I need.

With respect to the essay that you did write, I have an observation. Your main purpose appears (to me) to be to help people get THEIR points across by better understanding how they are being perceived by their “opposition.” I have had some experience with your approaches before, and noticed that there can be a down-side to taking your advice if it is not done in a rather skillful manner. Essentially, the “opposition” discovers that they are being talked to in a manner that has been carefully crafted to persuade them, using psychological insights about them. And they take that as an indication of dishonesty, which, in some cases, it is. I once had a boss who had a small plaque that said “Sincerity is the key to success – once you learn to fake that, you have it made.” And, he was good at faking it, for a while. But, once his technique became known, his reputation began to precede him, and he was done.

So, getting back to my dilemma, how do I get people to stop using “techniques” on me and actually engage in a logical assessment of the situation and possible courses of action? I am afraid that your essay will cause the activists to merely PRETEND to consider things like mitigation, coping and uncertainties in the human species’ ABILITY to stop climate change. And the denial people of various types will be thinking “Aha, you are trying to use Sandman’s techniques, but you clearly don’t have an open mind.” I have seen too much of that type of behavior in other politicized debates.

So, can you give us some pointers on how to get back to intellectually honest discourse from the place that we now find ourselves? It seems to me that would require us to actually BE intellectually honest, rather than just fake it. So, maybe a course in how to recognize intellectual dishonesty in ourselves?

From: Peter M. Sandman
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 25, 2009

You’re worried about the relationship between sincerity and strategy. I think you are right that strategy without sincerity doesn’t work for long – and can backfire badly when people realize there’s nothing real underneath the strategic packaging.

And you’re right that my stock-in-trade as a risk communication consultant is strategy. So there is a basis for your concern that when people like me offer strategic advice on how to be more “persuasive” to clients who are contemptuous of their stakeholders and unwilling to take their concerns seriously (but want advice on how to pretend to take their concerns seriously), we may be helping neither our clients nor the world.

With that on the table, let me say (sincerely) two things on behalf of communication strategy.

First, sincerity without strategy is probably preferable to strategy without sincerity, but it’s far from optimal. Often my clients really do want to establish a more respectful dialogue with their critics, but they’re not good at it. In fact, they’re often really, really bad at it.

Ego and ideology get in the way of good risk communication far more than self-interest does. It is commonplace for companies and activists to adopt postures of arrogance, intransigence, or defensiveness toward their critics even when those postures stand in the way of achieving their own goals (whether the goal is return-on-investment or movement-building). They sincerely want to achieve their goals. They are sincerely (though perhaps reluctantly) willing to change how they address the concerns of critics if that’s the best way to achieve their goals. But ego and ideology are making it harder for them to see that this is so. Strategic consulting can help.

Second, strategy can frequently lead to sincerity. In the dynamics of change – both individual change and institutional change – rhetoric usually changes first. Behavior changes next and attitudes change last. This is true of people or companies newly interested in reducing their carbon footprints. And it is true of climate change activists newly interested in proselytizing more respectfully.

Improved external communication can thus be internally subversive. That’s why speechwriters and communication consultants are more powerful than their clients realize. If I can convince either side in a controversy to adopt a posture of transparency, responsiveness, and perhaps even empathy toward opponents – insincerely, for purely strategic reasons – I stand a good chance of nurturing a dialogue that will in fact be more transparent, responsive, and empathic … and ultimately of nurturing attitudes to match.

It’s easy to find instances of “hypocrisy” when people or organizations are in the middle of this change process, when their behavior hasn’t yet caught up with their rhetoric, or their attitudes haven’t yet caught up with their behavior. Labeling and attacking the hypocrisy can short-circuit the change. To facilitate the change, it’s better to take people and organizations at their word, to hold them accountable for living up to their rhetoric (and to give them a little time to do so).

From: Steve Long
To: Peter M. Sandman

First, let me clarify that I have attended some of your seminars, read some of your papers, and taken your message in a positive manner. I have been somewhat successful in improving my abilities to talk productively with “opposition” types because of what you have taught me. But, I was working at a federal government agency at the time, and also watched some disingenuous uses of your techniques, too.

Actually, most of the time, inside and outside the agency, I found that people did not change in the way they treated me until they had an opportunity to see ME change. If I made a mistake and acknowledged it, or took one of their points and incorporated it into a revised position, or even just changed my approach to provide a win-win opportunity, I could see people stop and reevaluate their relationships with me. But, those opportunities are not very frequent because I have already considered a lot of things in forming my opinions. And, it is not something that is a good idea to fake.

So, most of the time, I just had to contend with people ASSUMING that I was an intransigent opponent who needed to be bashed instead of engaged at an intellectual level.

That is why I was suggesting to you that a course in being more introspective about our own positions would possibly be helpful for highly politicized debates like global warming. I think some of your messages already provide some introspective insights for those of us who are inclined to see them. But, I am hoping that your expertise would allow you to provide some means for making at least some of the people who are NOT so introspective still begin to ask themselves things like “Why am I so sure that I know enough to be correct about my position?” Typically, if they can answer that question rationally and without copping out with a reference to some “respected” other, then they are in a better position to be persuasive to others. I think that is a good “hook” for you to use to get them to look inside themselves some more.

From: Betty K. Jensen
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 25, 2009

Two comments:

number 1
Since you list and describe three reasons for questioning global warming, I wonder if you came up with equivalent reasons which would explain those who believe in global warming.
number 2
You state that “I am simply playing the odds, betting that the expert consensus will turn out right (as it usually does) and the contrarians will turn out wrong (as they usually do).” It is not quite certain which side of the issue has a greater group of experts.

From: Peter M. Sandman
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 25, 2009

Can I identify some reasons why people support the global warming hypothesis? Good question. What’s sauce for the goose…. Here’s a first crack at a parallel list to my partition of global warming deniers into “intellectual,” “strategic,” and “psychological” varieties:

number 1
Some people are “intellectual supporters.” They are convinced by their review of the evidence – or by other people’s reviews of the evidence, which they have decided they trust – that the risk is real and serious. Or they are convinced that the risk is likely to turn out real and serious, and that it requires prompt action even though there is some chance the action may turn out unnecessary or harmful in the end.
number 2
Some people are “ideological supporters.” They hate the internal combustion engine, the multinational corporations, the focus on growth and consumption in Western society, etc. They hated these things before global warming came along. Now global warming is both another reason to hate them and a possible vehicle to defeat them.
number 3
Some people are “constituency supporters.” Everybody they know seems to be taking climate change seriously, and they fear they could lose stature in their crowd if they didn’t take it seriously too. This may lead them to hide doubts of which they are fully aware; more typically it leads them to repress any doubts of which they might otherwise be aware. (The former is analogous to strategic denial, the latter to psychological denial.)

As with my climate change denial taxonomy, these three categories are not exhaustive and not mutually exclusive.

Some of this is at least implicit in the essay I referenced in my earlier comments, available at The last half of the essay is mostly about the ideological supporters, and my judgment that they are badly mishandling climate change advocacy. You might want to read some of it.

As for your second point, I actually thought pretty much everyone agreed that the distribution of expert opinion is highly skewed. Even those who argue that this is more a reflection of political correctness than of evidence-based conviction seem to agree that it’s so. Climate change contrarians would seem to be conceding as much when they call themselves contrarians. But you’re quite right that if I were to learn that the consensus is shifting, or that I was wrong about it in the first place, this would lead me to hedge my bets. I am backing the favorite, not doing my own assessment of the data.

From: Ron Law
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 25, 2009

With respect, may I add number 4?

number 4
Some people are “opportunistic supporters.” They see a whole new industry from which to make $$$$ … not unlike the plastic telephone card a few years back where one-off cards fetched $100,000 plus on the open market. The ETS system being proposed is a brilliant opportunity for traders to make a lot of money. Selling carbon credits in Norway to industry at the bottom of the planet (assuming of course that the northern hemisphere is at the top … that is a man-made concept) does nothing to reduce CO2 emissions … but it is good bu$ine$$ for traders.

From: Betty K. Jensen
To: The RISKANAL listserv, March 25, 2009

I notice that a group that is missing from your description of those supporting global warming theory is a group analogous to those in strategic denial.

“Strategic denial is the position of those who may privately believe that climate change is real and serious, but have reasons for pretending otherwise – paid spokespeople for organizations that have a vested interest in denying the significance of climate change…”

I suspect that many among those supporting global warming theory are supporting it because of the large financial support available for such research and related work.

From: Stephen L. Brown
To: Peter M. Sandman, March 25, 2009

Your essay touched on my points more thoroughly than I, and with more documentation. I didn’t try to read it all, but got through a lot of it.

I guess I personally must be somewhere between the intellectual skeptic and the person denying through “intellectualization.” It’s not clear to me how either I or someone else could determine which were the case. Is there a test?

The only areas of your piece that I might quarrel with concern the issues of morality and guilt. I am one of those who are indeed angered by what I see as the environmentalists’/activists’ need to assign blame and their attempts to instill guilt. Perhaps that is my own attempt to avoid feeling guilty, but it could also be because I don’t feel guilty and don’t accept the blame for the real and alleged harms that are their causes. Although I understand that environmental and other damages have occurred, I think they are rarely the result of moral turpitude but rather mistakes or side effects of attempts to make life better. Sometimes the net of environmental damages outweighs the net of societal goods, but that is not always the case and, in my opinion, mostly not the case. The very word guilt implies that one has committed an offense, which seems to me an inappropriately harsh term for wanting to enjoy the benefits of energy consumption, in the case of AGW.

The activists have the right to their ideological beliefs, but I don’t see those beliefs being the result of provable moral superiority. The folks who are disputing AGW think they have the moral high ground because they advocate “freedom,” “personal choice,” and associated catchwords of the conservative/libertarian canon, and are not interfering with the right of each person to make his or her own choices about using energy, etc. In reality, I think society has no choice but to try balancing the conflicting value sets of all people through a flawed political process that is not advanced by accusations of blame.

From: Peter M. Sandman
To: Stephen L. Brown, March 27, 2009

You raise two issues:

number 1
The distinction between people who have genuine intellectual objections to the global warming hypothesis and people who are intellectualizing their psychologically motivated denial of the global warming threat.
number 2
The distinction between a denial-induced negative reaction to guilt appeals (because you feel guilty) and straightforward irritation at guilt appeals (because you have nothing to feel guilty about).

In both cases, the bottom-line answer is the same. You are right that it’s hard to tell the difference.

And there is a real risk that the concept of psychological denial can become just another rhetorical weapon that backfires when global warming activists try to deploy it. Accusing people of being “in denial” is almost as insulting as accusing them of being “deniers” or “denialists” – in my terms, accusing people of psychological denial is almost as insulting as accusing them of strategic denial.

As psychiatrists know all too well, you can’t just tell somebody he or she is in denial. Even if you’re right, it won’t help. Telling people in denial that they’re in denial reliably pushes them more deeply into denial. Psychiatrists can spend years slowly helping their patients get to the point where they can get along without a particular area of self-deception, and therefore can afford to see through their own previous denial.

When I wrote “Climate Change Risk Communication: The Problem of Psychological Denial,” my intended readers were climate change activists, not people in denial about climate change. I wanted to help activists consider the possibility that some of their communication strategies were backfiring on some of their target audiences. I wasn’t writing for the target audiences.

It’s not obvious how open climate change activists will be to my urgings that they consider psychological denial when they design their messaging. They tend to divide the world into four groups with regard to climate change:

number 1
People who are already converts.
number 2
People who are ripe for conversion.
number 3
People who are too apathetic to listen, and need to be aroused before they can be converted.
number 4
People who have ulterior reasons for refusing to be converted (strategic deniers).

I want them to acknowledge two more groups:

number 5
People who genuinely disagree on the merits (intellectual deniers).
number 6
People who can’t bear to let themselves agree, who have a strong cognitive or emotional need to avoid the issue or to be on the other side (psychological deniers).

My essay focuses on #6. If I’m reading you right, you wonder if a lot of people I classify in #6 might really be in #5. Activists think a lot of people I classify in #6 and you classify in #5 are really in #4.

How can we tell who’s right – especially given that pure cases are rare, and almost everybody’s motives are mixed?

The classic test to distinguish denial from apathy is to see how people respond to efforts to arouse concern. Apathetic people should become more concerned in response to messages that urge them to become more concerned. At worst, the messages may fall flat. If the messages boomerang, leading the audience to become less concerned instead of more, odds are the problem was denial, not apathy. (The other possibility is that the messages were really, really bad.)

In principle, the same test should work to distinguish genuine intellectual objections (intellectual denial) from intellectualization (unconsciously motivated psychological denial masquerading as intellectual denial). If I give you a sound argument and you reject it, you must be in denial … if not strategic, then psychological.

The problem with this reasoning is the difficulty – if not impossibility – of judging objectively whether the argument you rejected was actually sound.

When climate change supporters and climate change deniers debate, each typically thinks at least some of the other’s arguments are specious. And in fact both sides are right in thinking so. We all use specious arguments – sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, most often in a middle zone where we have papered over the flaws in our argument and then allowed ourselves to forget that that’s what we did. This is itself a kind of psychological denial, I think. We know we’re right, so we convince ourselves that we’re not misleading anybody when we avoid acknowledging certain facts that might suggest we could be wrong. It’s those inconvenient, anomalous facts that are misleading! So in self-deceptive good faith we construct partly specious arguments on behalf of a position we genuinely believe to be true. Elsewhere I have called this “misleading toward the truth.” Both sides do it – but of course the other side is misleading toward the “wrong” truth. So we all judge our opponents’ specious arguments by a much tougher ethical standard than our own. Soon enough we forget that our own arguments were specious at all.

Climate change deniers can certainly point to genuine flaws in the global warming case. The existence of those flaws doesn’t really help us determine whether the denial is intellectual (grounded in the flaws), strategic (grounded in self-interest), or psychological (grounded in cognitive dissonance or intolerable emotion).

One of the core principles of risk communication is that our risk perceptions are more a product of “outrage” (how upsetting the risk is) than of “hazard” (how dangerous it is). When outrage is low, people resist the data that hazard is high. When outrage is high, people resist the data that hazard is low. What exactly do I mean by “resist the data”? For some people, especially those without a lot of education, resisting the data means mostly ignoring the data. When you’re done explaining the science, they’ll simply say, “Well, fine, but I still think….” The risk perceptions of more educated people are just as outrage-motivated, just as immune to data – but more educated people don’t feel they can just ignore the data. Their response after you’re done explaining the science is likelier to be something like this: “I see four methodological flaws in your study….” The flaws are really there, but they’re not why the speaker is unpersuaded.

A position that is denial-motivated, like one that is outrage-motivated, will normally represent itself as grounded in the merits.

If you think the global warming case is strong, you will naturally have trouble accepting that anybody’s denial is intellectual … even if you concede (under pressure) that the case has some flaws. If you think the case is weak, on the other hand, you will naturally tend to assume that the denial is intellectual … even if you concede (under pressure) that you might also have some strategic or psychological reasons for leaning that way.

Or to put it a different way, people who accept the global warming hypothesis tend to imagine that there could be no intellectual reasons for rejecting it. And people who reject the global warming hypothesis tend to imagine that they have nothing but intellectual reasons for rejecting it.

I’m not a postmodernist. I don’t believe that truth is “constructed.” Truth exists. But truth is hard to ascertain. And the more controversial the issue, the harder it is to figure out what’s true, and to be sure your judgment about what’s true is grounded in the merits of the case, rather than in strategic considerations or psychological pressures.

It can’t be a coincidence that most people who have long hated the internal combustion engine, the multinational corporations, and the consumerist society think global warming is real and serious, while most people who have long hated government intervention and self-righteous leftists think it isn’t. The few exceptions – the libertarians who are reluctantly persuaded about global warming and the liberals who are reluctantly skeptical – are perhaps the only ones who can be trusted to judge on the merits.

I particularly like what you say about guilt. You offer three quite different reasons for rejecting (angrily) the activists’ global warming guilt-trips:

  • Sometimes undesirable environmental outcomes are more than balanced by desirable outcomes in other venues. Pulling millions of Chinese out of poverty, for example, isn’t a trivial reason for emitting more greenhouse gases.
  • Even in cases where the harm outweighs the benefit, guilt requires bad motives, not just bad outcomes. There’s arguably no moral turpitude in “wanting to enjoy the benefits of energy consumption” – certainly there was none until very recently when the question of serious impacts on climate began to be raised.
  • There are many ethical frames in play here – not only environmental responsibility, but also freedom (to name just two). Global warming activists aren’t just pretending a debatable scientific question is settled; they are also pretending a complex ethical quandary is simple.

I agree with all three points. I would add a fourth:

  • Some people do feel guilty about global warming, and some are suppressing feelings of guilt because they find them unbearable. Guilt-tripping these people will only push them more deeply into denial, costing global warming activists supporters they could have won with a gentler messaging strategy.

From: Stephen L. Brown
To: Peter M. Sandman, March 31, 2009

Reading your thoughts on “Climate Change Risk Communication” and the subsequent exchanges has stimulated me to revisit and in some cases rethink or expand on yet other related speculations. Perhaps this is all part of intellectualizing my denial of the more disturbing possible consequences of AGW, but even if so, perhaps some of the thoughts are valid nonetheless. My brain hurts when I try to sort out all the possible motives.

This time I am again writing you one-on-one rather than posting to RISKANAL, feeling that the average list member may be tired of this topic while you may still be interested. Warning: This, too, is l-o-n-g. My feelings won't be seriously injured if you don’t read much of it. While all of the following are related ideas in the sense that associations in my mind led me from one to another, they are not especially coherent, and may well represent some need on my part to tell SOMEONE – vent? – rather than just churn internally.

In no particular order:


I think your premise in the article was that some subset of the AGW dissenters (another word for skeptics or deniers) believed at some level that AGW was indeed real and serious yet found themselves not doing much about it, and therefore felt guilty. The pain of the guilt then made them either avoid thinking about AGW entirely or intellectualize to come up with some reason not to change their behavior.

This made me think about the concept of guilt, about which I have already made a few comments.

Suppose my mother had a Ming vase. If the folks who were moving her to the assisted living facility knocked it over, I would feel regret that the vase was broken, but certainly no guilt. If the vase were broken because my son was rushing to give my mom a hug, my feeling of personal responsibility might be triggered, but not by much. If my son were practicing soccer in my mom’s house, I would feel worse because I probably should have done something to corral my son. If I knocked over the vase while helping the movers carry something out, I would also feel bad, but I doubt I would identify the feeling as guilt. If I were participating in the soccer game, I would feel considerably worse because I surely should have been more careful. Maybe that feeling could be called remorse. If I deliberately broke the vase because I was angry with my mom about something and later felt bad about it, that would definitely qualify in my lexicon as guilt.

Somehow, in my mind, guilt implies some degree of intent, or at least disregard for the interests of others. Remorse is also associated with wrongdoing, but in my mind has less implication of intent. Perhaps this is just semantics; some people, at least, would deny AGW to avoid feeling bad, whether the feeling was remorse or guilt. On the other hand, given your interest in communications, it may be better to identify people as feeling remorseful rather than guilty.

To put this more personally, it seems to me rather likely that polar bears will decline in number due to AGW and possibly become extinct in the wild, and I would be quite sorry about this situation. (I may never see a polar bear in the wild, but I like the idea that they’re around. I think the economists say that they have “existence value” for me.) So I should be willing to give up some of my current consumption to lessen my subjective probability that the polar bears will disappear, and I think I am. But it appears that I am not willing to stop using this computer because it consumes some energy. So it is for me not a matter of “whether” but of “how much.” As others on RISKANAL have suggested, those who assign any probability that AGW is real and bad will generally accept the cheaper and less draconian fixes, like energy conservation. I drive an SUV, but it is a CR-V, not an Escalade. (Of course, I have to admit that choice is driven not by AGW but by the fact that I am a frugal person in general.) The point here is to what extent should I feel guilty about the polar bears, as opposed to remorseful or simply regretful? Does it matter that in AGW, it is pretty much everyone who is in some part responsible? In the psychological world, does guilt have any gradations, or is it like virginity?

A final set of thoughts on this subject: How much does it matter whether I am thinking about wrongs that have already occurred or ones that might occur in the future? To use the vase analogy, is there a difference between feeling uncomfortable that I’m letting my son practice soccer in the house (knowing that the vase may get broken, even if it is not very likely, but also being unwilling to stifle his joy) and feeling regretful or remorseful that the vase did in fact get broken by an errant soccer ball? Should I feel worse about the demise of the Monteverde Golden Toad, which some folks blame at least in part on AGW and for which, if true, I have at least in some small way been responsible, or about the possibility that the polar bear will be gone in another few decades? Is it worse that I did cause some harm or that I might cause some harm if I don’t mend my ways? How much does it depend on whether the wrong is highly probable vs. marginally possible? On whether the harm is imminent or not? Within my lifetime vs. decades or centuries away? (In the nuclear waste arena, the debate swirls about wrongs that would be unlikely to occur for millennia.)

Cassandras and Pollyannas

For some time, I have been thinking about the variations in sociopolitical worldview that drive so many of our disputes about environmental issues (among others). I’m not alone by any means, and have seen a variety of takes on the subject. Applying labels probably not only oversimplifies the situation but also can be a source of conflict outside the real issues.

Nevertheless, I have come to characterizing some of the voices in AGW and other environmental debates as Cassandras or Pollyannas. In case it’s not obvious, the Cassandras are the ones I see as taking an overly pessimistic view of almost all environmental “threats,” seeing impending doom in a wide variety of human activities, including especially the deployment of technology, while the Pollyannas are overly optimistic about the results of those same activities. (In constructing this discussion, I discovered that the word “Cassandra” also implies that the people so labeled feel they can do nothing about their predictions of doom, but that wasn’t in my thinking when I started it. I haven’t yet found a better label.)

The labels are pejorative to the extent they suggest that the people labeled are inappropriately pessimistic or optimistic. Most people use “optimistic” as a compliment, while to me “Pollyanna” implies too much disregard for the downside. I see many of the most vocal AGW dissenters as Pollyannas. They tend to argue that because technology has so obviously improved the average person’s quality of life worldwide (a premise with which I would largely agree), other technologies will also improve conditions more than they will harm them. These folks discount the possibility that life as we know it may disintegrate if AGW continues unabated, a premise that is embraced by the folks who are talking about “tipping points” (see But I see the latter as Cassandras (narrow definition) because they see the probability of disaster as being higher than justified by the available evidence.

I am wondering:

  • Are these just labels I use to justify my disagreement with their positions?
  • If such labels do describe something real, does “Cassandraism” in one arena imply similar attitudes in another? E.g., if one regularly sees environmental doom in deployment of technology, does (s)he also see bad consequences to be likely from, say, a change in governmental powers? My initial reaction here is no, because it seems to depend on ideology; the technological Pollyannas seem more likely to be Cassandras about stronger governmental programs and vice versa.
  • Is there a wide spectrum of Cassandraism and Pollyannaism, or is it more or less bimodal?
  • Has any rigorous study of these characteristics and their psychological associations been conducted?

I am also a bit worried about the “Peter and the Wolf syndrome.” If the Cassandras call wolf about too many issues that turn out to be of little real concern (meaning that any harm is limited to a few people or environmental resources), will the issues with huge potential for disaster be discounted? Will the Pollyanna viewpoint be amplified? This may be part of the reason that AGW is not getting as much action as the activists would like. (Conceptually, I would like to see a probabilistic risk/cost/benefit decision analysis of AGW that would take into account not only the most dire possible consequences but also the most favorable benefits, all with assigned probabilities of occurrence based on available science. But it would probably be impossible to get the players to agree on any set of consequences, probabilities, and cost/effectiveness inputs.)

Resistance to change

Just a digression here. One of the problems I have with the most ardent AGW activists is what I view as an unreasonable resistance to change per se. As you noted, global cooling has already been a minor issue, and I’m reasonably certain that if our problem was too much reflective particulate rather than too much carbon dioxide, the same folks would be just as outraged. If you’re against both AGW and AGC, then you must have in mind some intermediate global temperature that is just right – or you simply resist change.

If it’s the former, how do activists decide whether the temperature was just right in 1850 or 1900 or 1950? Why not 10,000 BC? If it’s the latter, why is change so threatening? (Some will tell you it is not the fact of change but the pace. There is some validity in that, but it is not totally convincing, either.)

On the opposite side, the dissenters seem too resistant to changes in the U.S. preference to rely on free markets in dealing with problems – to changes in the dominant economic paradigm.

I haven’t stumbled across any literature dealing with this perception of mine. Perhaps it has been studied and dismissed.


Your piece identifies two sources of psychological denial: cognitive dissonance and unbearable emotion. I gather that these are well known in the psychological literature, and I remember hearing about the former decades ago. Both descriptions seem to me plausible descriptions of how people deal with certain kinds of issues. Here I’m only asking how much they apply to AGW specifically. My guess is that the cognitive dissonance one is dominant. If I personally am indeed intellectualizing my denial of AGW severity, then cognitive dissonance would be a good reason. I don’t want to cut back my lifestyle drastically or lobby every level of government to intervene, so I adjust my assessment of how likely and how serious the impacts of AGW will be to fit my inaction.

To me, the intolerable emotion description seems more suited to something like the Holocaust deniers. If your father was a Nazi, then it would be horribly upsetting to entertain the notion that he was involved in perhaps the biggest atrocity of all time, even if only by not speaking out against it. I can well understand that one way of dealing with that pain would be to deny the existence, or at least the extent, of the Holocaust.

Somehow I have difficulty imagining someone having the same emotional reaction to AGW, especially when the worst consequences are all uncertain and in the future. Was your identification of this source of denial simply a hypothesis, or is there already some observational evidence that it is in operation? Of the folks you believe to be in psychological denial about AGW, how many would be in the cognitive dissonance category and how many in the intolerable emotion category? Has anybody done fMRIs on a group of people to see if their fear/guilt/sadness centers become active when asked to think about AGW? Or maybe these centers haven’t even been identified as yet.

The human element

It is quite clear to me that the AGW issue wouldn’t draw much controversy if the “A” weren’t the first initial. If the observed warming trend could be fully explained by the solar cycle and natural geologic and biologic events on earth, I doubt that anyone’s knickers would be in a knot. Maybe a few folks would be arguing about whether a technologic intervention should be entertained to stave off the projected impacts. I’m guessing that the activists and dissenters might switch sides, with the current activists resisting any human-mediated intervention.

For comparison, let’s look at two other issues that could be on center stage.

The first is asteroid impact – which is known to have occurred in the past, as recently as the 1908 Tunguska event; which has a very recent near miss; and which is virtually certain to happen again, with possible consequences ranging up to mass extinction. There is still some controversy over the role of the K-T impact on the dinosaur extinction, but if we counted noses the way we are doing with AGW, I think it would take the “blame.” Now clearly it is not human behavior that is causing asteroids to whiz by, and so it could be argued that modifying human behavior is not even relevant. But it is plausible that we could spend bucks on figuring out how to prevent or ameliorate impacts (see the movies “Asteroid” and “Deep Impact”) or be prepared to deal with the consequences (shelters, protected stores of genetic material). Except for a few zealots, however, this issue isn’t even on the OTH radar. I think the activists are uninterested because there is no human to blame.

The second is the decline of the amphibians, especially the frogs. Here it is pretty clear that the proximate cause is a parasite. There is less agreement about whether pesticides, global warming, or other human activities have had a role in potentiating the infestation by the parasite. The amphibian issue is therefore not off the activists’ list of issues, but it certainly is far from the top, in spite of the fact that disappearance of an entire order or even class of vertebrates is possible. From the standpoint of ecologic damage, I would think this more important than the impacts of global warming. It is more like the K-T event. Perhaps the issue isn’t higher on the list because, although the activists can find a plausible human-related culprit in the pesticides, it is not clear that reduced use would do much to help the frogs recover.

The AGW dissenters have the opposite image: too wedded to the right of humans to control and exploit their environment. I think this tendency is present to some extent because of correlations with religious views. How much it influences the dissenters’ take on AGW is not clear to me.

I could be wrong about the importance of the human element; if I am right, why is it so? Perhaps in the case of asteroid impact, the AGW activists are true Cassandras: They feel incapable of doing anything to prevent it occurring or even lessening the impacts. If it’s the parasites and not the pesticides endangering the frogs, maybe it is some Gaian faith in the virtue of Mother Nature, as opposed to the essential corruption of the human condition. I haven’t read a lot on this hypothesis.

To close this thread, I’ll return to something you said to the effect that the activists were already prepared to blame the energy companies for AGW because they already hated them for their environmental sins and their promotion of the consumer mentality (you actually said “philosophical attachment to simpler lifestyles”). I would propose that they also already hated those companies because they made profits. Time after time I have read an environmentalist diatribe that includes allegations that big corporations are deliberately ignoring concerns about the environment and other aspects of human welfare because of their pursuit of profits. Interestingly, they do not as often attack specific individuals, and almost never the stockholders that are the ultimate recipients of the profits after the executives have taken their piece. (I happen to agree with the activists that corporate executives are overpaid relative to their contributions to net human welfare, but that is a long story that I will refrain from telling here.) I speculate that going easy on the stockholders may have something to do with the fact that many activists depend on diversified mutual funds for their retirement plans.

Envy may have something to do with the resentment of the rich – I seem to remember that most folks are not particularly upset by people with a net worth twice as much as themselves, but are upset when the difference gets to about three times. I may have the numbers wrong, but the idea is that you can’t easily imagine someone being worthy of the larger amount, but can formulate a scenario in which your own net worth would double. So I think a good deal of the environmentalist credo is a displacement of outrage about monetary success.

To finish full-circle, I wonder whether environmental activists feel guilty because they are still vastly richer than the beggars of Calcutta and yet don’t donate everything they own to improve the condition of those beggars. If so, what is their mode of denial?

From: Peter M. Sandman
To: Stephen L. Brown, April 3, 2009

I find a lot of your speculations fascinating. As you point out, there may be data supporting or rebutting some of them. But we have moved a considerable distance from my field of risk communication (where I do try to keep up with the research), so I’m not much help figuring out where you’re on target, where you’re off-base, and where you’re advancing a new thought. I’ll confine my response, therefore, to four of the many questions you raise – the four where I have, if not data, at least a strongly felt speculation of my own.

Feeling bad about nonfeasance

Whether we call it guilt or remorse (it’s more than mere regret), the point is that many people do feel bad about global warming – not just about the problem, but about their failure to do as much as they think they should in response. The guilt/remorse is attached to the nonfeasance. Moreover, at least some people, some of the time, feel more guilt/remorse than they can comfortably bear. So they go into denial. I don’t know how many people feel guilty about not doing enough to address global warming, and how many are in denial in order not to feel guilty. But I suspect both numbers are climbing.

“Guilt” accurately describes some of what I feel when I contemplate my own consumptive lifestyle and my carbon footprint. And perhaps “denial” explains why I don’t contemplate those things too often. Denial may also account for why I haven’t done more volunteer work on climate change risk communication – a failure that also arouses some guilt when I let myself think about it. And what about all those books and articles on global warming that I keep not reading? I can make a case that they’re boring, but at least part of the truth is that they’re guilt-inducing, and that I’d rather feel momentarily guilty because I didn’t read them than feel perpetually guilty because of what they taught me.

So I think global warming guilt and denial to avoid global warming guilt are probably focused not on the past, but on the present and future. Caring without acting makes people feel guilty; feeling guilty makes people want not to care.

We’re all Cassandras; we’re all Pollyannas

It is well established, I think, that most people tend to be Cassandras about some kinds of risks and Pollyannas about others. I wrote the following paragraph in a 1994 encyclopedia entry on “Risk Communication”:

Risk-aversion, risk-tolerance, and risk-seeking are often assumed to be enduring traits of character (in individuals and in cultures), but the variations are more impressive than the consistencies. There is no great surprise in encountering a sky-diver who is terrified of spiders. Concern about personal risks (like cholesterol) shows only modest correlations with concern about societal risks (like industrial effluent). When the domain of “risk” is extended even further, the correlations may disappear or even reverse. Quite different groups lead the way in concern about environmental risks (global warming, toxic waste dumps), economic risks (recession, unemployment), and social risks (family values, violent crime). Cultural theories of risk try to make sense of these patterns; one such theory attributes them to distinctions among hierarchical, entrepreneurial, and egalitarian cultural values. Depending on the hazard under discussion, in short, we are all both over- and under-responders to risk.

In a June 2008 Guestbook response, I made the same point in a more personal way, noting that in the environmental realm I find it easier than most people to shrug off the “outrage” component of a risk and focus on its “hazard” component – and thus to accept expert reassurances that a low-hazard high-outrage risk isn’t worth worrying about. But not in some other realms:

For health and environmental risks, I usually … decide where most of the experts stand – and that’s where I stand too…. I am unusual – statistically weird – in that I find this fairly easy to do. Most people are more responsive to a risk’s outrage than I am. And most people are less comfortable than I am playing the odds – that is, relying on the mainstream experts while knowing that once in a while they’ll be mistaken or dishonest. My atypical risk response is probably why I became interested in risk perception and risk communication issues in the first place.

That’s for health and environmental risks. In other risk venues I am oversensitive to outrage and totally impervious to expert reassurance. For example, I avoid situations that pose a high risk (in my mind) of social embarrassment – sports and dancing come immediately to mind – even though I know the real hazard to my reputation or self-esteem is very low.

At least in the U.S., the evidence is solid that the political left tends toward global warming alarmism, while the right tends toward global warming skepticism. You have pointed out some of the political values that may account for this relationship, including attitudes toward the free market, capitalism and profit, big government, consumerism, etc. More broadly, I think the right tends to be Cassandra-like about the risks of social interventions (believing that societies are fragile and vulnerable to the unanticipated consequences of social engineering) and Pollyanna-like about the risks of technological interventions (believing that ecosystems are robust and that any unanticipated consequences can be dealt with when they arise). The left has the opposite tendencies. More broadly still, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky developed their “Cultural Theory” of risk (referenced briefly in the excerpt from my encyclopedia entry) in a 1982 book entitled Risk and Culture that you might find interesting.

Some of this is more a result of historical accident than of fundamental values. It’s not obvious to me, for example, why the left cares more about polar bears than the right, while the right cares more about fetuses than the left. But it is perfectly obvious that most people know which side they’re on. Our decisions to take action on behalf of polar bears or fetuses are at least as influenced by constituency loyalties as by underlying values – and more influenced by either than by scientific data.

How common is global warming denial?

You ask whether I have observational data showing that people, and how many people, are in denial about climate change.

I haven’t got any persuasive proof I’ve been holding in reserve, waiting to spring it on people who doubt my denial hypothesis. As I say in the column/essay, the best indicator of denial is a paradoxical response to evidence and argument: When information that usually makes people more concerned about a risk seems to be making someone less concerned instead, it’s a good bet that denial is at work. That happens often enough with regard to global warming to make me think that climate change denial is a phenomenon that matters. But no, I haven’t got anything resembling definitive proof, much less a quantitative estimate. The evidence of climate change denial is considerably weaker than the evidence of climate change.

People on both sides of the climate change debate have written to tell me they find my hypothesis unconvincing. Global warming activists naturally tend to get a bit defensive about my charge that they’re pushing people away by fear-mongering, guilt-tripping, ignoring technological solutions, ignoring adaptation, and the rest. Global warming opponents tend to get equally defensive about my suggestion that they might have been pushed away by these things – that their opposition could be grounded more in psychodynamics than in intellectual conviction.

So are they evincing “denial denial”? Are global warming opponents running from the idea that they’re in denial, and global warming activists running from the idea that they’re exacerbating denial, because these ideas arouse cognitive dissonance and/or intolerable emotion? Conceivably. But I can’t prove that either. The paucity of my evidence certainly constitutes grounds for “denial skepticism.”

You also wonder how often I think global warming denial results from intolerable emotion versus cognitive dissonance. Your hypothesis is that dissonance would be the likelier of the two causes; you think climate change isn’t certain enough or imminent enough to arouse feelings so strong they have to be denied. I suspect both causes are common – that’s why I discussed them in such detail – but once again I have no data. It’s worth noting, but far from definitive, that several of the messaging sins I accuse climate change activists of committing (fear-mongering, guilt-tripping, etc.) are more directly relevant to the emotional causes of denial than to its cognitive causes.

How important is the “A” in “AGW”?

The speculation in your email that I found most fascinating was that climate change activists and their opponents might well switch sides if it became clear that climate change was natural rather than anthropogenic. (We’ll leave aside the question of whether people are part of nature.) It’s fun to imagine the right urging a massive Manhattan Project effort to refashion the world to our liking, while lefty environmentalists insist that it’s wrong to meddle in natural processes. Alternatively, you suggest that without humans to blame the climate change issue would be minor, like the threat of as asteroid collision and the decline of the frog population.

In my column/essay, by contrast, I called the fight over whether global warming is anthropogenic “stupid.” I argued that what matters is whether we can solve the problem, not whether we caused it.

It is certainly true that in order for a problem to become high-profile, a case needs to be built that people ought to take action on that problem. Without things to do and reasons to do them, apathy is the rational response. And yes, showing that the problem is anthropogenic is one way to build the case for action: “You broke it. You fix it!”

But there are other ways to build the case that action isn’t just feasible but called for, perhaps even ethically obligatory. The case for intervening to stop genocide, for example, isn’t grounded in blame. Neither is the case for rushing to the aid of earthquake victims. Yet people do feel these obligations – many people feel them strongly enough to take action, and many others feel them strongly enough to experience denial.

In risk communication, the distinction between “natural” and “industrial” is on every list of the dimensions that determine whether people over- or under-react to a risk. It’s much easier to get your audience worried and involved if you’ve got somebody for your audience to blame. But risk communication doesn’t teach that it’s good strategy to blame your audience itself. To the contrary, anger is a demonstrably stronger motivator than guilt (or remorse, if you wish). Activists are thus on stronger strategic grounds when they blame multinational corporations for global warming than when they blame human overconsumption. A blanket indictment of overconsumption works best on the minority who consider themselves anti-consumption exceptions, who experience the indictment as a reason for anger, not for guilt.

It is easiest to motivate action with a third party to blame. Which comes in second, nobody to blame or only your audience to blame? I’m not sure, but I think I’ll go for nobody. Blaming your audience is asking for denial.

The main problem with asteroid collisions as an issue, I think, isn’t that there’s nobody to blame; it is that the issue is extremely abstract. When astronomers can tell us that a particular asteroid is headed our way – complete with a touchdown location, an arrival date not too many years off, and a color photo of the asteroid – people will take interest, just as they do in the disaster movies you mention. Excessive abstraction was the main problem with global warming too, until polar bears, melting icecaps, and the like came to our rescue. It is still the main problem with global warming for many who remain apathetic. But today lots of people experience climate change as real and emotionally compelling, which helps them get involved – while others (I believe) experience it as so real and so emotionally compelling they can’t bear it and retreat into denial.

Asteroids are too abstract for just about everybody. Global warming is still too abstract for some. It is too upsetting for others, and “just right” for still others.

What about your second example, frogs? The only time the decline in amphibian populations has looked like it might become a top-tier controversy was in the 1990s, when some environmentalists suggested that pesticides and other industrial chemicals contained “endocrine disruptors” that threatened irreversible damage in all animal species including humans; frogs were just the canaries in the mine. The sexual implications of the endocrine disruption story were especially compelling, featuring frogs with stunted penises and humans with declining sperm counts. As I mention briefly in my column/essay, both the environmental movement and the chemical industry expected the endocrine disruption issue to rise to the top of the charts. It hasn’t (at least so far) – a fact I attribute to denial. The chemical industry was a terrific villain to blame, but the story was simply too terrifying to think about.

But you’re right: When the endocrine disruption hypothesis went out of favor (at least so far), the decline of the amphibian population lost its shot at the big time. Frogs aren’t as photogenic or conceptually cuddly as polar bears (though in practice they are safer to cuddle). There is no longer an obvious human villain to blame; pesticides, habitat disruption, and even climate change are all contributors to the problem, but the principal culprit appears to be a parasite. Perhaps most important, as you point out, it’s not clear just what action we can take to Save the Frog. Without anyone to cuddle, anyone to blame, or anything to do, the prognosis for amphibians is grim. I don’t see any denial problem here, just apathy.

From: Stephen L. Brown
To: Peter M. Sandman, April 10, 2009

Here I go again, still finding that your responses both enlighten and stimulate more thoughts. You are welcome to stray out of the psychology/communications realm as much as I intrude into it. I think my only formal education in psychology was a survey course taught by Ernest Hilgard in maybe 1955. However, I do know Baruch Fischhoff and Paul Slovic and have read some of their stuff, including doing a review of one of Paul’s books.

I transitioned from a physics education to risk assessment via speculating about the consequences of nuclear war before anyone had defined risk assessment as an occupation. Now, in retirement, I find myself especially interested in how people process information (and disinformation) about risk. I also am fascinated by nuances in language, as you may have surmised, and by questions of philosophy.


So I start with your use of “nonfeasance” in connection with AGW guilt.

Usually, nonfeasance is restricted to official duties or legal requirements, which suggests to me that you are talking about guilt related to a failure to perform a duty. I suppose you mean a duty to protect other people and the non-human environment, whether or not at the expense of one’s own wellbeing. Presumably, sociopaths are at one end of a spectrum of concern for others, while Mother Teresa types are at the other. Most of us therefore find the selfishness of a sociopath morally repugnant, but can scarce believe the selflessness of the other extreme. Just how far along that spectrum we lie probably determines what degree of selfishness we see as immoral and how much duty we feel to do the right thing. Both of course depend on our belief that our actions or our inaction will lead to bad consequences for others, which in turn requires us to believe both in a scenario of harm and in our ability to influence it to some degree.

So I would hypothesize that denial via guilt affects most the people who are most selfless, not the ones found more often on the political right. By contrast, denial via cognitive dissonance could occur if one believed that the scenario would be bad for oneself but did nothing about it.


A digression on belief. I often use that word to describe what I think to be true and useful in directing my decisions. While I agree with you that objective truth exists outside my belief system, I also think that nobody knows the whole truth about anything and must make his way through belief. We are all to some extent blind men feeling the elephant.

In my world, belief is also graded. I believe very strongly in the laws of physics, probably due at least in part to my education. I might say that I am 99.999+ percent sure that the laws governing electricity and magnetism are true. I said on RISKANAL back in 2006 that I would give global warming 99 percent and AGW 95 percent but that I was completely uncertain (50 percent) “whether the net consequences outweigh the net costs of intervention.” I suppose if these subjective probabilities are above 50 percent, I am a believer. Note that my beliefs can change as new information comes to my attention. When I first heard about continental drift (now known as plate tectonics), I didn’t believe it (p < 20 percent). Now I do (p > 99 percent). Like you, I often rely on the current balance of opinion from experts, but I also test the assertion against my own set of observations and against theoretical considerations. For example, I’m a doubter that statins should be routinely prescribed to protect against cardiovascular disease, although it is my sense that a preponderance of the experts lean that way.


You write: “I avoid situations that pose a high risk (in my mind) of social embarrassment – sports and dancing come immediately to mind – even though I know the real hazard to my reputation or self-esteem is very low.” We need to get you into a twelve-step program to work on your dancing issues. Or maybe find some data demonstrating that your dancing does indeed suck.

But seriously, folks, I found your discussion of Pollyannas and Cassandras enlightening and on-point.

The Human element and outrage

After I sent my last harangue, I started to expect that you would respond by bringing up the issue of outrage, which plays a prominent place on your website. In retrospect, it seems obvious that outrage isn’t directed to anything but humans (or at least shouldn’t be, even though I am frequently angered by the perversity of inanimate objects). So I went and read a few of your paragraphs on outrage posted on your website.

If I understand you correctly, the danger from a hazard perceived by an individual is amplified if that person can generate some outrage toward someone or someones identified as causative. You actually write RISK = HAZARD + OUTRAGE. I assume you don’t mean this in any literal sense, as you would have a problem with units. I think you mean something like this: Methyl ethyl chickenwire (MEC) as presently used is estimated by risk assessors (with admittedly crude tools) to cause about 10 cancer deaths per year in the United States. Lightning causes perhaps 80–90 deaths per year, yet a lot of people are more concerned about MEC than about lightning and would vote to regulate MEC but not to spend money on research regarding personal lightning rods. Or maybe it just means that those folks want to punish the profiteers at MEC Inc. via the regulations, and don’t have anyone to punish for the lightning deaths. (I remember reading once that people don’t necessarily think that the risk assessors are wrong, they just see the putatively avoidable deaths from MEC as worse than the natural, understandable deaths from lightning.)

In your response to my earlier piece, you said, “Alternatively, you suggest that without humans to blame the climate change issue would be minor, like the threat of an asteroid collision and the decline of the frog population.”

Just to clarify, I didn’t use the word “minor,” although I was asserting that the public perception of AGW dangers wouldn’t be as great if the warming weren’t seen as anthropogenic. Using the outrage equation metaphor, the hazards of AGW, asteroid impact, and amphibian extinction might be roughly equivalent, but the outrage is zero for the asteroids and low for the amphibians. (Note: American risk assessors use “hazard” differently than I think you do in the equation.) No, I don’t have access to the oracle that knows the true consequences of those three hazards, so I’m just hypothesizing the equivalence.

Asteroid impact

I was struck by your use of the word “abstract” in connection with asteroid impact. I’m not sure which usage you were employing, but I want to emphasize that to me, it is less abstract than AGW in the following sense.

The Tunguska event was almost surely caused by an object from space; whether one calls it an asteroid or a meteorite is really not important. If it had landed in the middle of New York City, it would likely have caused a death toll that would have made the twin towers look trivial. And it happened only 100 years ago. The K-T event was 60 million years ago, but was much larger and led to mass extinctions much beyond those projected for AGW. A reasonably large space object hit earth last year, and there was a near miss only a few weeks ago. NASA probably has photos of that one. I doubt if there are any astronomers that discount the possibility or severity of a big impact. It is true that we don’t have enough data to form a very precise estimate of the probability of a major impact in the next century, but I am confident that if humanity survives long enough, it will have to deal with this issue or die. That doesn’t mean that I am personally an asteroid activist. It is one of those low-probability high-consequence hazards that basically get discounted to the point of inaction because of the time scale.

Actuarial risk estimates versus model-driven risk estimates

Another aside. Asteroid impact is like lightning strikes and automobile accidents to a risk assessor because they are all actuarial risks. At least in principle, we can use data on the frequency of past events to predict the risk of future events. We can with high confidence say that there will be about 45,000 motor vehicle fatalities next year. By contrast, predicting the number of cancer deaths from MEC is completely model-driven, because (in my hypothetical example), a cancer caused by MEC can’t be distinguished from one caused by something else, so there is no observational basis for an actuarial analysis.

AGW is somewhere in between. It is a one-off event with no actuarial data to use, and all of the predictions of future harm are essentially model-driven (climate models plus various theory-driven extrapolations of consequences). But we do have actual temperature records and lots of evidence that something is going on – glaciers and sea ice disappearing, trees blooming earlier, ecological changes and extreme weather events that may or may not be the result of the warming trend. The folks who are truly AGW denialists seize on the model issue as a reason to disbelieve the predictions, arguing that the models have not been sufficiently validated, and so on. Often they are the same people who have no trouble accepting an economic model with assumptions that haven’t been evaluated, à la the financial meltdown. In reality, I think everyone relies on models to direct their choices, whether those models be quantitative or conceptual. As George Box said, all models are wrong but some are useful.

Endocrine disruptors

We seem to agree that the amphibian issue, however large the true hazard, hasn’t been amplified as much by outrage as AGW and other hazards that are easily blamed on humans in general and corporations in particular. I also acknowledge the psychological importance of charismatic megafauna (polar bears) on the value side of the equation. Most of us just find ourselves caring more about the bears than the frogs, even though the latter may be more important for the stability of the ecosystem. And because it is the humans that make the decisions, it is our value structure that ultimately determines what we do.

You noted that the amphibian collapse was thought by some in the 1990s to be caused by industrial chemicals that were “endocrine disruptors,” and you went on to speculate that the reason this concern fell out of favor was denial triggered by the overwhelming fear of what they might mean for humans as well. My speculation is different. Although I served on a committee with Theo Colborn and found her a fine person and exceptionally sincere in her beliefs about these chemicals, I was never persuaded, for a couple of reasons. One was that there wasn’t a majority of biologists climbing on board the bandwagon – in your way of thinking, no expert flow to go with.

Second, a lot of it just didn’t fit with my mental model of how things work. Lack of a dose-response relationship, for example. No explanation why massive intake of phytoestrogens was OK. I, an admitted non-biologist, said more about this in my RISKANAL comments on bisphenol A. So my take is that the issue subsided (but obviously hasn’t gone away) because it is more like homeopathic medicine than like DDT and raptor eggs. But maybe I’m just in denial, too.

Now I want to touch on a couple of items that aren’t directly in the thread of our discussions, but popped into my mind because of something that was.

How to manage hazards amplified by outrage

I’ll introduce this by talking about how decision analysts (often also Friedman economics devotees) approach the whole issue of responses to alleged hazards. The basic idea is to try to estimate the probabilities of various outcomes from some hazard, assign values to them (usually in monetary units), estimate the costs and effectiveness of various proposed remedies in the same units, consider the influence of uncertainties in all of the preceding, and take into account risk preferences (e.g., how much more do we want to avoid a catastrophic loss than a number of smaller losses adding up to the same value).

When you see things in this light, the best decision is the one that minimizes expected economic loss or maximizes expected economic gain within the constraints of risk preferences. Of course, a key question is gain or loss to whom. When decision analysts do the work for a corporation, it is usually its interests than dominate. When it is for the USEPA, it is supposed to be for the public interest, some aggregate of the interests of all the U.S. population. Although decision analysts will usually admit that their models may turn out to be incorrect, they rely on the assumption that errors will tend to even out if there are no persistent biases in the assumptions and methods. This kind of thinking leads people like Tony Cox to decry “concern-based regulation” that devotes resources more or less in proportion to what you call outrage instead of in proportion to what you call hazard. In other words, Tony more or less rejects the outrage portion of your equation. (I may be misreading Tony entirely. If so, I apologize.)

I tend to agree with Tony that including outrage leads to bad decisions in the sense that the usual measures of gain and loss (e.g., lives saved vs. dollars spent on mitigation) are distorted by considering outrage. If we increase the price of apples because of concerns about Alar, and Alar turns out to cause virtually no harm to kids eating Alar-treated apples, then we have decreased society’s welfare, not increased it. You don’t have to have a selfish profit motive to want to avoid that outcome, or to want society’s resources to be applied where they will have the most bang for the buck.

On the other hand, I also recognize that there is value in reducing outrage and fear. If a lot of people think Alar might be very bad and are angry with the manufacturer, then banning it might be of some value to their senses of security and justice. Decision analysts would find it difficult to deal with this aspect of decision-making because it is not clear how to monetize outrage.

Maybe here is the place where your specialty of risk communication can do a lot of good. Find ways to reduce the outrage component without distorting the cost-effective application of resources to the worst hazards. I don’t mean just trying to convince people that their outrage is somewhat counterproductive. Perhaps there are ways to punish the perps and reduce fear without significant damage to the efficient allocation of resources.

Normative versus descriptive

If I’m correctly diagnosing the motives of Tony Cox and others like me who are suspicious of concern-based regulation, we share a feeling that the government (and people in general) should focus on the “actual” risks (hazard, in your equation) and discount the outrage component. This position is normative – how we would like things to be. But clearly it is not descriptive. People do feel outrage, and directly or indirectly through the government include its consideration in decision-making. We suspicious ones feel frustrated that the public does not see the superiority of our normative position.

Picking up on your “symmetry” arguments, the liberal environmental activists also hold normative positions that are not congruent with the descriptive picture of society. They tend to think that people should be more concerned about the environment (whatever that means to each one) and less about their own welfare. Corporations should provide products and services that are free of hazard and be unconcerned about profit. Presumably, they are also frustrated when those things don’t happen.

I have a hunch that these folks are more likely to hold a normative position that is unrealistic, but that may be just my cognitive dissonance kicking in. Clearly we have been able to move closer to some liberal normative positions like “we all should be color-blind” in spite of what I guess to be an evolutionary xenophobia that hasn’t entirely been lost.

(Random thought: Are the creationist/intelligent design folks in denial about evolution because it threatens their mental model of God?)

I’ll close this missive with what I call the normative fallacy. It occurs when someone cannot perceive that the descriptive does not conform with his normative. He then starts to believe that his normative is the descriptive.

Again we have some symmetry. The doctrinaire libertarian’s normative position is that the unfettered invisible hand of the free market should create the greatest good for the greatest number. (Wow, Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith!) When confronted with the descriptive reality that the market doesn’t work out as well when there are externalities, unequal access to information, etc., he starts seizing on anecdotes to prove that it does and blames any failure of the market on its not being free enough. On the liberal side, I couldn’t immediately come up with an environmental example. I’m pretty sure that our founding fathers meant “All men are created equal” to be a normative position, while some of the current crop of social activists seem intent on rejecting any information suggesting that it is not descriptive.

I think you can tell that I enjoy this exchange, but I will not pout if it withers.

From: Peter M. Sandman
To: Stephen L. Brown, April 11, 2009

I’m going to let it wither, at least for now – not for lack of interest but for lack of time. But I did want to respond first to your closely connected final two sections.

We clearly agree that outrage does in fact influence risk management decision-making, both by individuals and by societies. We share the same descriptive judgment. But we have different normative judgments about the proper role of outrage. Let me quote from the same 2008 Guestbook answer I quoted on a different point earlier in this dialogue:

This emphasis on outrage rather than just hazard isn’t foolish. It reflects our shared understanding that outrage matters. We want to live in a world where we decide for ourselves which risks to accept; where we don’t have to endure the anxiety of facing highly dreaded risks; where institutions behave morally, tell the truth, and are responsive to our concerns. These outrage components – voluntariness, dread, moral relevance, trustworthiness, and responsiveness – are not alien, Martian values. They are our values. By making these values part of what we mean by risk, we are insisting that society take these values seriously in its decisions about risk policy and risk management.

My Guestbook answer goes on to give a hypothetical example I use often:

Imagine that every ten years or so a sniper climbs up onto an overpass with a high-powered rifle and shoots and kills a passing motorist. Then he’s good for another decade. Finally, after 30 years and three deaths, he is caught and brought to trial. Here’s his defense: “During the 30 years during which I shot and killed three passing motorists, thousands of people died on our nation’s highways as a result of drunk driving, not wearing their seatbelts, poor highway design, and poor automotive design. Sniping is an infinitesimal part of the highway death toll. In picking on me, a mere sniper, the government is distorting the public’s understanding of the real priorities of highway safety. The money the government is spending catching me, trying me, and imprisoning me could save far more lives if the government made the rational risk management decision to let me continue killing a mere one person per decade, and reallocated the money to repainting the lane markers on highways.”

My hypothetical sniper is right on the data. Nonetheless, no jury would vote to acquit. Even after they study the data, normal people support spending more money per life saved catching and punishing snipers than repainting lane markers.

I believe that outrage plays a legitimate role in risk decision-making, and that concern-based regulation is therefore legitimate as well.

Nonetheless, I share your judgment (and Tony Cox’s judgment – and the judgment of many of my clients) that concern-based regulation misallocates resources to insignificant hazards, and thus costs lives. I would rather see resources misallocated than see people’s outrage flouted or ignored; if there are no alternatives, resource misallocation is not too high a price to pay for democratic responsiveness.

But there are alternatives. One of the main things I do as a consultant is try to help my clients reduce technically unjustified outrage by acting more decently. That breaks a vicious cycle whereby stakeholders mistakenly think a hazard is serious because the company is acting like a jerk, and the company feels entitled to act like a jerk because the hazard isn’t serious. “Stop acting like a jerk,” I tell my clients. “Listen to people’s concerns. Apologize for mistakes. Tell the truth about emissions. Share control over decisions. Share credit for improvements. As your stakeholders’ outrage declines, their inclination to overestimate the hazard will decline with it.”

I think this is what you were asking for when you suggested that risk communication could “find ways to reduce the outrage component without distorting the cost-effective application of resources to the worst hazards.” As I end almost every seminar on outrage management:

The proper response to a serious hazard is to fix the hazard. The proper response to a serious outrage isn’t to ignore it, and isn’t to fix the hazard. It is to fix the outrage. Don’t expect a vapor recovery system to make people less angry and upset, any more than you would expect an apology to make people less endangered.

In the natural history of most risk controversies, industry and government start out by ignoring public outrage about a small hazard – which reliably exacerbates the outrage. Then they marshal hazard date to prove that people are foolish to get so upset – which reliably exacerbates the outrage. Then they question the motives underlying people’s complaints – which reliably exacerbates the outrage. Finally, having exhausted all the remedies they can think of, they reluctantly and resentfully take steps to reduce the small hazard. And then they blame this misallocation of resources on the public’s outrage … instead of attributing it to their own failure to address the outrage in the first place.

For more guidance on better ways than hazard reduction for addressing outrage, let me refer you to the columns, articles, and Guestbook entries listed in my Outrage Management Index.

What do I think regulators should do about low-hazard, high-outrage risks when all efforts to address the outrage have so far failed? In extremis, does over-managing the hazard help get the outrage under control? And if so, is it worth it? I grapple with these thorny questions in a long essay entitled “Because People Are Concerned: How Should Public ‘Outrage’ Affect Application of the Precautionary Principle?link is to a pdf You may enjoy it.

But what’s crucial to understand, I think, is that this problem would arise far less often if companies and agencies took outrage management seriously. Concern-based regulation isn’t the optimal response to technically unjustified concern. It’s a better response than indifference or contemptuous “education” of the concerned public – but the optimal response is what I call outrage management.

From: Stephen L. Brown
To:Peter M. Sandman, April 16, 2009

I've decided to fling out one more set of thoughts before I (probably) will let it wither, too, even though I was surprised how many different ideas cropped up after reading your latest response.

You hit it on the button when you said we have different normative judgments about the proper role of outrage. After boring down through layers of factual observations, theories to fit them, interpretations of data, and so on, it is so often the case that any residual arguments are about normative positions and values.

A couple of thoughts here.

First, I'd like to probe your judgment that the emphasis on outrage rather than hazard is legitimate. I now remember reading some of these thoughts before, whether directly attributable to you or from other sources. I think I had more reservations then than now after this exchange, but I still have some.

You seem to have two lines of thought here.

Outrage as a motivator of deserved punishment

One is that outrage is justified by the misbehavior of companies, so punishment is required. At least that is what I inferred from the sniper example, which in itself is congruent with my moral sense. However, it also seemed to me to imply that you equated the behavior of the sniper with the behavior of corporations regarding risk issues – that you put them at the same level of immorality. I’m guessing you really did not intend to do so, as the sniper is clearly shooting with the intent of doing harm, whereas I doubt that even the worst industrial villains have such an intent. Furthermore, in my experience, the natural history of a risk controversy starts out with an allegation of harm which the alleged perpetrator does not recognize to be true even when it is.

Note: I do not object to using a simplified example – even a reductio ad absurdum – to illustrate a point. In fact, I like to do so myself, because I think it helps both me and the listener clarify some issues. In this case, it illustrates that we all have a suite of values, some of which are in conflict (at least in specific cases) with others. Here, our desire for justice trumps our desire to use human resources efficiently.

So a better metaphor for the early stage may be a hunter who shoots deer to keep them from overpopulating an area; he also sells the venison. Someone who is already angry with the hunter because he killed Bambi’s Dad alleges that once every ten years, one of his bullets strays and kills someone. He asks for proof. If the accuser finds a body with a bullet that ballistics evidence shows is from his gun, and the hunter keeps on firing in the same old way, then yeah, there’s reason for outrage and a response that doesn’t optimize hazard reduction efficiency.

Suppose that instead the accuser can’t come up with such actuarial proof but instead offers a model of statistical errors in aiming and estimates of the frequency that people are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it would be the rare hunter who would immediately say, “Okay, I see what you’re saying. I’ll stop.” Instead, he might hire a consultant to examine the model for deficiencies, of which there will almost surely be some. Because the hunter doesn’t want to think of himself as a bad person, he tends to believe the consultant, not the accuser, and continues hunting.

The accuser’s outrage gets amplified because she thinks the original model is OK. So she starts looking for other evidence to support her suspicions, and in almost every case can find something, even if she has to ignore some evidence to the contrary. If the allegation was indeed correct, the weight of evidence will start shifting against the hunter. He will probably still resist accepting the findings, partly because he wants to continue hunting and partly through denial based on guilt or cognitive dissonance. It is about here that I think outrage becomes clearly justified. If the hunter goes on to mount a disinformation campaign (as seems to have happened in a few instances like the tobacco companies), punishment is clearly justified.

What I’m worried about here is that the degree of outrage seems often to be incommensurate with the degree of misdeed. A finding of manslaughter because of negligence is not the same as a finding of first degree murder because of premeditation. I think that environmental fervor can blur such distinctions, and keep people from recognizing that the activities they find objectionable also produce benefits (venison, herd thinning) that are widely shared in society. Perhaps you have had more opportunities to see sniper morality in corporate executives than have I. (Interesting that the outrage seems rarely to be directed to specific individuals but instead to some sinister THEY who run the corporations.) I realize that I may have completely misunderstood you here, but if so, you might consider reworking your sniper example.

Outrage as a social evil to be mitigated for its own sake

Your other line of thought I find easier to accept. I think you are suggesting that the resources devoted to fixing the hazard should be commensurate with the magnitude of the hazard, but that we also need to devote resources to fixing the outrage. That’s a point that I seem to have missed earlier and that now makes sense. I am reasonably comfortable with the idea that corporations and government should both try to be more understanding of public outrage and to manage it with the objective of reducing it to levels appropriate to the degree of harm and moral turpitude involved. I would only suggest that there is some symmetry here too; the concerned public needs to understand better that companies are not as single-mindedly profit-seeking as is generally believed, that it is not possible to recognize every unintended consequence and fix it appropriately, and that most (not all!) corporate executives think they are behaving ethically and providing society with value that vastly outweighs the costs of those unintended consequences. Because you talk about the ineffectiveness of guilt trip messages in risk communication, you probably have already said something to this effect, but I haven’t stumbled across it.

My other thought is still incubating and entails speculations about communication that you have probably already mulled over somewhere. It seems to me plausible that communication designed to get people to know one another better would help in reducing outrage. If the environmental activists can come to understand that the motives of “polluters” are not intrinsically evil, and if (as you emphasize) industry can recognize where outrage comes from and when it is (at least with respect to some moral codes) justified, then it might be easier to come to a compromise on which problems are too small to bother with, which should be addressed by balancing costs and benefits, and which are so severe as to require a ban or voluntary suspension of activities. (Curious how the connotation of “pollution” differs from that of “emissions” or “residuals,” etc.)

But I’m also wondering whether that hypothesis is true. When you get to know someone (of whom you are initially suspicious) really well, can you actually find more faults to confirm your suspicions? When you get down to the values level, do you find that you and the other person value physical goods, justice, equity, freedom, etc. vastly differently, enough so to be even angrier with that person? Maybe it’s situation-dependent.

Again, I’m in an area where my store of data is small. The only personal observation supporting the pessimistic hypothesis is a perception that communication via blogs and similar threads of conversation (like this one) is leading us to more political polarization, not less. My libertarian friend seems to be getting most of his “information” from the right-wing fringe, and seems to be becoming more likely to hold positions that I find extreme, simply because their rhetoric reinforces his existing tilt. My most liberal friends seem to gravitate toward Mother Jones and similar sources, which I also find unconvincing. (Disclosure: I think of myself as moderate or independent politically. I almost always vote Democratic and had no problem in voting for Obama, but I wouldn't consider voting for Ralph Nader.) Maybe my Mother’s caution never to discuss politics or religion with anyone you wanted to keep as a friend was right on. Or maybe I’m confusing communication with propaganda.

I’m not expecting a reply to any of these latest thoughts, although you are certainly welcome to respond. If you do, I hope I can suppress any desire to have the last word. It certainly is not necessary to add any of this to your website, although you have my permission to do so.

I'm not sure why I was so motivated to have this conversation. I suppose I have some hubris in thinking that I might have some insights that would actually improve the functioning of our society in the areas of discussion. However, I realize that even getting them onto your site will probably not reach very many people. But the conversation has at least allowed me to sharpen some of the arguments that usually just circulate around my own brain as some kind of fugue, something that might not have happened without an actual person on the other end.

Copyright © 2009 by Stephen L. Brown, Peter M. Sandman,
Steve Long, Betty K. Jensen, and Ron Law

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