Truth or Consequences

Why undesirable solutions fuel disbelief.
Truth or Consequences

EVER WONDER WHY DIFFERENT PEOPLE can look at the same evidence but come to very different conclusions? One cause of this phenomenon just might be “solution aversion,” according to a recent study. That is, if someone dislikes the solution to a problem too much, the easiest course of action is to deny the problem exists at all.

Doctoral student Troy Campbell and associate professor Aaron Kay, both of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, conducted three experiments. Each experiment involved one of three issues backed by strong evidence—climate change, air pollution, and crime.

In one experiment, study participants were asked to identify themselves as either Republicans or Democrats. Then, each read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees by the end of the 21st century. Finally, each was asked to evaluate a proposed solution to the problem. When that solution emphasized taxes or government regulation, both generally opposed by Republicans, only 22 percent of Republicans said that they believed the original statement. When the solution emphasized free market solutions such as green technology, 55 percent of Republicans said they believed it. Democrats’ belief did not change regardless of the statement.

In a second experiment, however, Democrats showed similar solution aversion after reading a statement about the frequency of home break-ins. More stated that they believed the statement after they evaluated a solution that involved stricter gun-control laws; fewer believed it when the solution involved looser gun-control laws.

For many, “the cure can be more threatening than the problem,” says Campbell. These findings show that it’s counterproductive to label those who deny evidence of a problem as “anti-science,” say Campbell and Kay. It’s better to try to understand why some view particular solutions as threatening. By doing so, those on both sides of a debate can reach past political divides and communicate more effectively.

 “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief” appears in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.