Science Directions

Decades of psychological science confirm that common sense and intuition often lead to faulty judgment and poor decision-making. People routinely underestimate the power of the situation and other forces outside their awareness in shaping emotion, perception, action and cognition.

These basic principles apply to all of us — students, scientists and even our representatives in Congress. They are simply human nature, but sometimes they carry very costly consequences. A chilling example played out in February, as most of us in the nation’s capital dug out after two blizzards.

With several feet of snow on the ground and cold winds blowing, people were wondering about the veracity of global climate change. To be more precise, many were asking how these freakish snowstorms could possibly be happening if global warming is a reality. For most people, it does not make sense. For climate science, of course, it makes perfect sense.

It was bad timing for a clash between common sense and climate science. APA’s own Task Force on Psychology and Global Climate Change was released in an effort to raise awareness of the contributions that research can offer to understand the psychological dimensions of global climate change. Momentum has been building for legislative action to address the causes and consequences of climate change, including the causal role of human activity.

The Washington Post asked several political and environmental experts if they thought the blizzards “buried climate change legislation.” In a Feb. 14 article, Christine Todd Whitman, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said, “It shouldn’t, but it will.” Similarly, Democratic pollster and author Douglas Schoen said, “The recent bout of wintry weather and the overall political climate have almost certainly killed climate-change legislation this year.”

Most disturbing of all was the almost gleeful comment of Ed Rogers, who had worked as a staffer in both the Ronald Reagan and the George H.W. Bush White Houses. He pronounced that the global-warming movement has “suffered a coup de grace: public ridicule brought on by a record-breaking blizzard blasting their East Coast home base.” He went on to ask, “How could it be that heat waves evidenced global warming, but so did a cold wave?” His comments simply confirm what many of us know very well: Common sense and intuition can often produce faulty judgment.

Commenting in a blog supported by The New York Times, Eric Johnson, PhD, director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School, reminds us of what the science reveals: “Both cancer patients and the snowbound share a tendency to overweigh the immediate evidence in front of them.”

In the same blog, Janet K. Swim, PhD, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the APA task force, said, “Perceptions of the implications of lots of snow for the existence of climate change are like the results from a Rorschach test.” She went on to note what the science tells us: “For many, it will reveal a preference for attending to salient and recent experiences versus patterns of data in their decision-making and a tendency to conflate changes in weather patterns with changes in the climate.”

In an almost perverse juxtaposition of psychological science, we have insight into the human behaviors that cause climate change and the human cognition that denies it. As the snow melts and spring flowers emerge, let’s hope our political leaders regain a proper sense of urgency in moving forward to address one of the greatest challenges now facing our planet and its inhabitants.