The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is it hard to get anywhere on fracking? Because people are too full of themselves.

Protesters demand a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial technique for removing oil and natural gas from the earth also known as 'fracking,' on June 30, 2014 in New York City. The protest was held outside a Democratic party event with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo attending. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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In the 2014 midterm elections, several localities -- including Denton, Texas, and Mendocino County, Calif. -- passed bans on "fracking," a catchall term that has come to describe the process by which companies use advanced or unconventional drilling technologies to access hard-to-get reserves of natural gas found in deep underground shale formations. Across the country, fracking is increasingly becoming a politicized matter, as drilling companies move in to tap valuable hydrocarbon resources and citizens charge that their air and drinking water are being polluted or contaminated.

Unfortunately, according to new research, it seems unlikely that these battles are going to lead to any kind of easy compromise or reconciliation -- if anything, quite the opposite. In a new study just out in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Kaitlin Toner Raimi of Vanderbilt University and Mark Leary of Duke show that on both sides of the fracking debate, those with more extreme views (either in favor of fracking, or against it) have a higher level of "belief superiority," meaning that they think their views are more “correct” than the views held by other people.

"What we show is that when people feel superior about their views on fracking, that people seem to derogate their opponent -- it leads them to become even more certain in their views," says Raimi.

In the study, belief superiority was measured by asking participants to rate, on a scale from 1 to 5, how correct their beliefs were compared with the beliefs held by others. Individuals were asked their views on 10 separate environmental issues (climate change, offshore drilling, fracking, and numerous others), and then about their belief superiority on each of them.  Then the study drilled down on the fracking issue in particular, asking the participants -- 96 individual living in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the fracking debate has been heating up -- to read an article about fracking in their state containing language that either supported or opposed the practice.

First, the study showed a widespread pattern of belief superiority on environmental issues, such that individuals who took a stronger stand on either side of a given issue also thought their beliefs were more superior. On climate change, for instance, people who were both very alarmed about the issue and also those who were very dismissive about the issue tended to be much more certain they were right about it than those who were more moderate, and neither very alarmed nor very dismissive.

And when it came to fracking, not only were those at the extremes more superior in their beliefs -- reading the article had a polarizing effect on these people. And that happened no matter what side of the issue they were on and no matter what the article said. For individuals who were high on belief superiority, the article led them to become even more certain of their views. But for individuals who didn't feel superior, it had the opposite effect:

"It’s kind of classic motivated reasoning," says Raimi. "People are finding information about the articles to agree with them -- what’s new about this is that we’re seeing the people who are feeling superior are more likely to do that."

There was one particularly surprising outcome of the study: On both sides of the fracking debate, people who showed more belief superiority were also more willing to talk about the fracking issue with the author of the article they had read. The study authors had hypothesized the opposite -- that people who were sure of themselves would be less willing to engage with those who might potentially disagree with them. This effect may indicate that those who are very certain of their beliefs also want to go out and convince others of them.

This is not the first time that the fracking issue -- much like the issue of climate change -- has been found to be politically polarizing. In other words, it looks like yet another issue where the more those on the left and the right learn about the topic or engage with it, the more they come to diametrically opposed conclusions.

Why does this seem to occur again and again on environmental topics, including not only climate change and fracking but also the issue of whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline?

One reason may be that environmental issues tend to elicit very different emotional responses on the right and the left. Take, for instance, research by Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California and his colleagues on the underlying moral emotions that drive political differences. The researchers found that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians often have different "moral foundations," or deep seated emotions that drive how they feel (before they are even thinking) about political issues:

As you can see above, liberals tend to respond most strongly to moral situations in which they perceive someone being harmed, or in which they detect injustice. According to Iyer, when it comes to environmental issues in particular, liberals are driven most of all by the "harm" foundation.

Libertarians and conservatives, in contrast, are powerfully driven by a sense of liberty, or freedom, especially when it comes to economics. This is, in fact, the chief moral emotion that the two groups share, and likely, that binds them together into a tight political alliance. Thus, as soon as they perceive freedom to be at stake in an environmental issue -- because, say, they sense an attempt to restrict what a company can do in its quest to create wealth and prosperity -- they too will find an emotional connection between their moral values and their issue stance. But it will be a different emotion, leading to a different conclusion.

Does this mean that the fracking issue -- still an emergent topic -- is destined to break like the climate change issue and become almost pathologically polarized? At minimum, the latest research suggests there is great potential there for this to happen. And disturbingly, that may be especially likely if both sides simply continue to pursue the debate in the way that feels most instinctive and natural to them.