Boomerang Effects in Science Communication: How Motivated Reasoning and Identity Cues Amplify Opinion Polarization About Climate Mitigation Policies

Hart, P. Sol; Nisbet, Erik
Communication Research

The deficit-model of science communication assumes increased communication about science issues will move public opinion toward the scientific consensus. However, in the case of climate change, public polarization about the issue has increased in recent years, not diminished. In this study, we draw from theories of motivated reasoning, social identity, and persuasion to examine how science-based messages may increase public polarization on controversial science issues such as climate change. Exposing 240 adults to simulated news stories about possible climate change health impacts on different groups, we found the influence of identification with potential victims was contingent on participants’ political partisanship. This partisanship increased the degree of political polarization on support for climate mitigation policies and resulted in a boomerang effect among Republican participants. Implications for understanding the role of motivated reasoning within the context of science communication are discussed.