WE all know the comfort of belonging to a tribe: the agreeable sense that we are among people like us, and the guilty pleasure we may take in despising those in the other tribe.
It’s a feature of every primary school playground and, for most of us, continues to play a role in our adult lives — even, or perhaps especially, when it comes to the stance we take on the major issues of the day.
Some tribes seem to take a particular pleasure in seeing themselves as a persecuted minority — anti-immunisation campaigners come to mind — while others are more triumphalist.
Tribes that cluster around fringe ideas may be soft targets for criticism, but what about those of us who broadly identify with the prevailing scientific view of the world — do we have our own tribe?
Australian psychology researchers analysing the psychological and social motivations of Americans who hold opposing beliefs on the causes of climate change have found a number of similarities in the ways the two groups behave.
Qualities shared by both “believers” and “sceptics” include social identification with the group, anger at the opposing group and a belief that their group can achieve its goals (group efficacy), the researchers write in a research letter to Nature Climate Change.
I’m not entirely comfortable with the linguistics here. Just how did supporters of a scientific view become “believers”, while those who oppose it receive the honourable title of “sceptics”?
But, leaving that aside… these researchers are pretty much painting a portrait of the schoolyard. We belong to the cool group. We hate the not-cool group. We’re going to take over the cubby house.
What is unusual about this research is that it also applies its description of group behaviour to those who align with the scientific view — not just to the fringe dwellers — which leads to some interesting suggestions about how such polarised views about science might be addressed.
“The key implication is that the divisions between sceptics and believers are unlikely to be overcome solely through communication and education strategies, and that interventions that increase angry opposition to action on climate change are especially problematic”, the authors write.
“Antagonizing sceptics and increasing their anger towards their opponents (for example, by suggesting that their beliefs are risible) is likely to rebound by making them more committed to take contrary action.”
A better strategy might be to undermine the sceptics’ belief in group efficacy, the authors suggest, perhaps by convincing them their efforts will be unlikely to prevent action on climate change.
I’m not sure that particular argument is well founded, given the way governments around the world are dragging their feet on the issue, but there can be little doubt we need new strategies for making the scientific case on some of the major challenges we face.
Findings from the Pew Research Center released at the end of January showed a dramatic gap between beliefs held by scientists and those held by the general American public across a range of issues.
Here’s just a few of them — 86% of scientists thought childhood vaccines should be required, compared with 68% of the general population; 88% of scientists thought genetically modified foods were safe, compared with 37% of non-scientists; 82% of scientists saw the growing world population as a major problem, compared with 59% of non-scientists.
And on climate change, 87% of scientists saw it as mostly caused by human activity, compared with only 50% of the general public (and 25% of the general public didn’t believe it was happening in the first place).
Scientists are not always right, but the scientific process is the best tool we have to identify, describe and, just perhaps, find solutions to some of the more intractable problems we humans face.
If a better understanding of group psychology can help further that endeavour, then bring it on.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.