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In good company

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My Fourth of July included dinner with a gathering of 10 friends, some of long acquaintance and some new to each other. As we settled around the table, one guest asked our hostess whether political topics were against house rules. In the frozen silence that descended, I saw eagerness mixed with raw fear. Proceeding gingerly, the group soon discovered many points of agreement. While the conversation was merry and even insightful, what I remember most is that comical moment of dread as we all contemplated the potential danger of speaking with each other.


I spent the rest of the weekend exploring some fascinating aspects of group dynamics, inspired by the latest study from The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (www.bit.ly/yaleclimatechange). Since 2004, this initiative has brought together psychologists, geographers, political scientists, statisticians, pollsters and communications scientists to find out how much Americans know about climate change, how they feel about it and how scientists and advocates can craft effective communication strategies to build support for climate change solutions.


Yale’s new survey reveals that most of us underestimate the extent of basic agreement about the reality of climate change and the need to take action. The survey numbers tell the story: respondents estimated that about 54% of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but the real number is 69%. Respondents also underestimated the depth of scientific agreement about human-caused climate change: while 53% of respondents thought a majority of scientists were in agreement, only 17% of those surveyed knew that the scientific consensus (climate change is real and human-caused) is actually more than 90%.


Psychologists have a name for this disconnect between our own personal beliefs and our perception of the more general consensus: pluralistic ignorance. It matters because our notions of consensus—or lack of consensus—have a significant effect on how often we are willing to speak up about an issue we perceive as controversial. If we think we are in the minority, we become less pro-active, silencing ourselves to avoid contention or because we aren’t sure we can marshal all the facts needed for argument. For example, 62% of the Yale respondents stated they were at least “somewhat worried” or “very worried” about climate change. Yet 63% reported they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family members or friends, and only 23% reported hearing people they know talk about it at least once a month. Similarly, 60% reported that climate change is important to them personally and they believe the actions of individuals can make a significant difference, yet fewer than half said they perceived a “social norm” or societal expectation that we should all do what we can to reduce global warming. In other words, most of us care but we don’t think anyone else does, and that means that many of us who support climate action feel more alone than we need to. About climate change, and perhaps about many other issues, it’s possible we aren’t nearly as polarized as we imagine or have been told—but we have to talk to each other to find out.

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