Troy Campbell Assistant Professor in Marketing, Lundquist College of Business, University of Oregon
The Basic Phenomenon of Solution Aversion
Why do people deny the biggest problems of our times, from climate to inequality? And why do people deny personal problems, like their personal health failings or finance troubles? Aaron Kay and I propose that one overlooked reason is aversive solutions to those problems. Understanding this can help us understand some of the biggest problems of our times, such as why certain groups deny certain problems and others don’t – because the solution is more aversive to one group than another.
At its most basic, the concept of solution aversion is the idea that people are motivated to deny problems and the scientific evidence supporting the existence of the problems when they are averse to the solutions. In our original work, we found that people evaluate scientific evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as politically desirable. Logically, the proposed solution to a problem, such as an increase in government regulation or an extension of the free market to fight climate change, should not influence one’s belief in the problem. However, we found evidence for solution aversion in three experiments (with samples ranging from 120 to 188 participants) on three different issues: Climate change, air pollution that harms lungs, and crime. Others have found similar effects.
For climate change, we tested whether solution aversion can explain in part why more Republicans than Democrats seem to deny its existence, despite strong scientific evidence that supports it. Participants in one experiment, including both self-identified Republicans and Democrats, read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century. They were then asked to evaluate a proposed policy solution to address global warming. When the policy solution emphasized the most commonly discussed environmental solutions, such as a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, things generally opposed by Republican ideology, denial was quite high. In one study only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the scientific statement they read, when the solution was government regulation. But, when the proposed policy solution emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans agreed with the scientific statement. For Democrats, the same experiment recorded no difference in their belief, regardless of the proposed solution to climate change.
Additional studies that applied both a free market ideology and a more liberal ideology on gun control showed similar solution aversion motivated denials. A conclusion of this study is that we should not just view some people or groups as simply anti-science, anti-fact or hyper-scared of any problems. Instead, we should understand that certain problems have particular solutions that threaten some people and groups more than others.
Of course, solution aversion is not the only cause for denial, but it is most likely a highly contributing factor in many situations. Almost all problems have a narrative that points to a solution. If the dominant or exclusive narrative around a problem points to an aversive solution, the solution aversion hypothesis predicts denial will be much more likely.
Solution aversion at its core is a simple idea and very relatable concept, but its nuances remain elusive. So let us take some time to ask what is really driving solution aversion; how does it relate to other phenomena?; what have we learned since the release of this paper?; and, importantly, are there any solutions to solution aversion?
The reason for denial in our original solution aversion work most likely stems from two separate aversions:
Ideological Solution Aversion (ISA)
Certain policy solutions threaten ideology by seemingly requiring us to admit a logic that derogates from a cherished ideology. Admitting a problem needs to be solved by regulating markets threatens some people’s cherished free market ideology. Admitting that social justice movements might need to be more ‘welcoming’, as BlackLivesMatter.com director Shannelle Matthews contends, can threaten some people’s group ideology. Admitting one needs to use recyclable bags threatens a masculine ideology. In sum, ideologies are ever present, are extremely important to people, and are easily threatened. Solutions are tinged with ideology and ideological threats, such that ideological solution aversion is likely to occur often.
Tangible Solution Aversion (TSA)
When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. Immediately, in my own microcosm of science denial, I denied the expert scientific assessment. In a story I recount in more detail here, I denied the problem because I knew what the solution was; a tangible reduction in eating the sweets, treats, and especially the Caramel Frappuccino’s I loved so much then.
In many cases, people might deny a problem simply because the solutions themselves are tangibly undesirable and often times overwhelming. From solutions of untasty foods, to radically changing your behaviour, to be more feminist, to annoying recycling, to difficult data process, etc. The way we solve problems of health, environment, social injustice, and the replication crisis in science are, for many, quite undesirable.
The denial of climate change based on a government regulation solution we observed may also itself have a tangible component, as people see engaging in the solution not only as an existential threat to their ideology, but also that it will bring about aversive tangible outcomes – meditational evidence in the 2014 paper around the participants’ belief that the solutions would have a positive or negative effects on the American economy suggest this is the case. Sometimes, we all come to believe things that we want to believe in, as Ziva Kunda explained in her foundational 1990 paper “The Case for Motivated Reasoning”. Many times what we want to believe is that ‘this’ is no reason to give up our; trucks, scientific methods, favorite policies, or Caramel Frappuccinos; one of the only ways to maintain that logical coherence in our head is to deny the existence of the problem (see our work on the denial of implication, for other ways people resist facts).
When “solution aversion” was released, it was immediately popular online, setting Duke University page view records and making it to the front page. One amazing part of this was in the comment sections, people provided so many examples of solution aversion that they saw in education, medicine, parenting, religion, and beyond. Solution aversion is one of these concepts which is not radically novel, but which has the conceptual clarity that has helped many people see issues more clearly, by identifying the motivational source of denial. This is important because it may be the case that people fail to generally see solution aversion unless they look for it. The comic below by M.R. Trower (the artist behind many of Dan Ariely’s social science books and indie comics) illustrates how tangible solution aversion operates in environmentalism.
The Solutions Are Not Aversive to Advocates
I once had an insanely fit professor who held a three-hour class at 8am on Wednesday. One day he came into class and said with no irony or self-awareness, “Don’t you guys hate this time of year, when you wake up for your morning four mile run and it is dark when you start and dark when you end.” And the class looked at him, half still in pyjamas, all with a sense of terror just thinking of the concept. The parable of the extremely fit professor is an example of how most advocates behave. For the fit professor, the solution to fighting unhealthness was not aversive; in fact he loved the most extreme solutions to the problem. He thus, had no motivation to deny anything around health, and furthermore, he did not see why anyone else would. One reason solution aversion is often overlooked is that for the activists and advocates, the solutions are not aversive, and even further they are often attractive. Like the fit professor who desires to run, health doctors like kale, environmentalists enjoy biking, and socialists love regulations.
The people promoting and designing the solutions to the problems do not feel the same way as some sections of society, or even the majority of people, so they might not pick up on solution aversion (see our work on empathy gaps for similar insights). For these advocates, the solutions are desirable and often easy. They’ve always been healthy, they have lots of knowledge of the environment, and they already have so much training in political correctness that the solution or any new tweaks to the solution are doable and desirable.
One sparkling example of this, is a single panel comic that is often gleefully posted online and put into academic presentations on climate change. The picture gets many Facebook likes and conference laughs because the image suggests how obviously desirable climate change solutions are, even if climate change did not exist. But the obvious solutions are only obvious to liberals. The “obvious solution” has the potential to lead to hell for those with a more conservative ideology. Many of those outcomes are not as desirable to conservatives, nor achieved in ways consistent with their ideology.
The doctor who diagnosed me with hypoglycemia was a great doctor because he understood psychology. He was a very healthy man, who I am sure loved things like kale, salads, and 6am jogs. But, he was also a smart enough lay psychologist to know that 14 year old me did not feel the same about those solutions. So, one of the first things he said to me after diagnosing me was how the solution to my hypoglycemia would involve a lot things I already loved, like steak, certain pastas – and if I was good and responsible, an occasional Caramel Frappuccino.
The Solution Seems More Extreme
If you ask an average person who cares about the environment what they think the solutions to climate change are, they will probably give you a modest reply. They will say it involves increased recycling, some new regulations, and a slow transition to a better world full of reusable bags, and Teslas for everyone. Ask an average listener to Glen Bleck who has read his liberal environmental dystopian novels like Agenda 21, and you’ll get a much more extreme answer, tantamount to environmental slavery. The same tendency to see an extreme, undesirable solution can occur for all issues, including getting personally healthy or promoting equality.
Our in progress, unpublished work on what we call “Focal versus Dual Concern” sheds some light on the psychology behind these anecdotal observations. We find in on-going studies that when we present individuals with a target who makes a statement about the need to address a problem, they see that person in a very extreme and specific way. When we present participants with statements like “the police are prejudiced against black individuals” or “American students are unfriendly to international students” or “Democrats are cruelly prejudiced to Republicans” or “the sciences take funding from humanities,” participants infer that the person making the statement is willing to solve that problem by taking actions that disregard its collateral impact – on the police, american students, democrats, or the sciences.
In other words, they see the person as willing to engage in very aversive solutions to the offending group. The assumption is that the person making that statement believes the offending X group to be morally superior to the victim Y group and has what we label a “focal concern”. As a result, in many situations, Democrats, American Students, and research participants will deny the factual problem that their group might be harming another group. All of this is in comparison to when the person making the statement shows what we call a “dual concern” in which the person who makes the statement that offending X group harms Y victim group, also indicates care for offending X group by suggesting that the offending X group themselves is also a victim of Y group, or an outside Z group. For instance, experimental participants on the survey platform Mechanical Turk are more likely to agree with a statement that M-Turk participants harm and mistreat the requestors that hire them to do surveys, when paired with the statement that many requestors in reserve also harm the participant survey takers. And people are much less likely to say that a racial justice advocate thinks the police are largely morally inferior and is willing to take actions to help black Americans with little regard for police, when paired with a statement that says the police are often harmed by poor policy and poor health coverage (an outside Z group).
In sum, our in-progress research finds that Dual Concern is effective at reducing inferences of solution extremism. Specifically, the dual concern approach reduces inferences of moral superiority and a lack of care, and this drives agreement on factual statements about problems. We also find it may be more effective than the often hailed group-affirmation, or at least it provides unique additive benefits. A compliment to offending X group may fail to minimize inferences about how extreme or careless a solution might be proposed to solve the problem of offending X group, compared to an explicit statement of care. Such initial findings offer hope for ways to fight solution aversion.
How to Fight Solution Aversion
There are potential solutions to solution aversion. Here are a few methods that show some promise:
Change the Solution. Of course, changing the solution cannot be a method in all cases. For instance, with climate change, it may be the case that some regulation is needed. However, many solutions can be altered, some diets can be varied, some policies can use free-market friendly nudges more than strict regulation, and environmental cars can be a sweet Tesla rather than a boring unflattering Prius.
Clarify the Solution. Sometimes people may be scared of a solution because they misperceive it; this is especially the case around politicized issues, or issues on which people have very little knowledge. For instance, being a vegetarian might sound miserable, but once you see all the delicious vegetarian options, it might not seem as bad.
Affirmative action may seem a lot more scary than when it is fully explained. And, as my lab finds, a person’s desire to solve a problem caused by X group may be less hostile and more caring toward X group when faced with a simple dual concern message. Thus, tendencies toward inferences of extremity can often be managed.
Ideological Affirmation. Though effects remain unstable, some initial pilot studies in my lab have shown some promise for ‘ideological affirmation’ in which a person affirms the overall value of the ideology before proposing a single ideologically conflicting solution. For instance, a person might propose government regulation of pollution, but after first generally praising free markets. This may be implicitly communicated, based on findings that in-group members can often more successfully communicate criticism to their group than out-group members.
Often times in actual political discourse, the opposite of ideological affirmation occurs. Many left leaning climate change advocates use the topic of climate solutions as an opportunity to criticize the entire ideology of the free market and business in general. As the only business academic who often attends local climate change conferences in Oregon, I once pointed out to the room that in about every fourth sentence I noticed an explicit or implicit attack against the concept of business.
Reward Substitution. In a now famous story from “Predictably Irrational”, behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely, explained how he created an enjoyable movie ritual to combat the negativity of having to regularly inject himself with a nauseating medicine to cure his illness. Instead of changing the focal solution, the negative qualities around it were abated through a reward substitution of movie watching. Social rewards, positive self-narratives, delicious treats, and many other things serve as spoons full of sugar to help the medicine go down. Whether the problem is environmental or diabetic in nature, what constitutes the “spoon full of sugar” will differ, but having a spoon full of something is a viable and often simple strategy to combat solution aversion.
One last question to address is: If aversive solutions lead to the denial of problems, might attractive solutions lead to the exaggeration of problems? For instance, if you were told that watching Netflix cured the common flu, would you be more likely to exaggerate the problem of the common flu as a way to justify bingeing on Netflix? What if the common flu could be solved by something that had identity importance to you? In one pilot study, part of another in-progress line or research, we investigated this later example.
On an engineering subreddit we asked participants many questions, one of which concerned the importance of the common flu. For half of the participants, we said the solution to the problem was engineering (e.g., better engineered equipment in bathrooms) and for the other half psychology (e.g., better psychological messaging strategies on equipment in the bathrooms). We found that for those on the subreddit who highly identified with engineering, and thus had psychological motives to see engineering as important, rated the common flu as a significantly more important problem when solved by engineering than when solved by psychology. Those who did not highly identify with engineering did not show the same pattern. We can think of how all of us might exaggerate those things that our identities and ideologies are great at solving. Accordingly, we propose that we may need an additional derivation to the classic phrase, “If you have a hammer every problem looks like nail” with “If you have a hammer every nail looks like a problem.”
While this work on identification is currently in progress, we think the theory behind it is quite sound. The implications are both positive and negative. On the one hand identification can motivate people to consider and possibly take action on a specific problem. Given that people probably spend less time than they could or should solving problems in the world this may be a positive. On the other hand, it may lead to misguided foci and further confirmation bias, like processes that prop up certain identities and ideologies.
Solution Aversion is one of many related phenomena that have been documented by research that ranges in context from macro global problems to micro personal diets. Solution aversion is often poorly understood, it is overlooked by advocates, and it is sometimes accompanied by ideologically-threatening rhetoric. However, there are many ways that this research is beginning to theoretically and empirically show that it is possible to attenuate the effects of solution aversion. There are, at least partial, solutions to the problems of solution aversion.