How Much Will the Sea Level Rise? Outcome Selection and Subjective Probability in Climate Change Predictions

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We tested whether people focus on extreme outcomes to predict climate change and assessed the gap between the frequency of the predicted outcome and its perceived probability while controlling for climate change beliefs. We also tested 2 cost-effective interventions to reduce the preference for extreme outcomes and the frequency–probability gap by manipulating the probabilistic format: numerical or dual-verbal-numerical. In 4 experiments, participants read a scenario featuring a distribution of sea level rises, selected a sea rise to complete a prediction (e.g., “It is ‘unlikely’ that the sea level will rise . . . inches”) and judged the likelihood of this sea rise occurring. Results showed that people have a preference for predicting extreme climate change outcomes in verbal predictions (59% in Experiments 1–4) and that this preference was not predicted by climate change beliefs. Results also showed an important gap between the predicted outcome frequency and participants’ perception of the probability that it would occur. The dual-format reduced the preference for extreme outcomes for low and medium probability predictions but not for high ones, and none of the formats consistently reduced the frequency–probability gap.

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