More Thoughts on the Conservative White Male Effect and Climate Change

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyAug 5, 2011 7:36 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

When I published Tuesday's much discussed DeSmogBlog post on conservative white men and climate change denial, I had no idea I would need to defend the basic idea that there is such a thing as "social dominance orientation" (which I only discussed for one paragraph of a much longer post). I figured readers would take it for granted that this is a serious scientific concept, so I just linked to the Wikipedia page. I mean, it's not like somebody just conjured up social dominance orientation during a walk by the seaside one day. A psychometric scale was developed and validated to measure this attribute or characteristic, which varies within the human population. See here for the published research on this. Nor did I think that it would be surprising to observe that, if there is dominance behavior in males, a little hormone called testosterone might be involved. I have not done much reporting on testosterone, but here is a recent review paper that more than covers it. The conclusion:

Testosterone has been the focus of intensive research for decades. Whereas early studies pointed towards a role in physical aggression, recent evidence suggests that this simple view needs to be refined. In particular, it appears that testosterone promotes status-seeking and social dominance motives, and thus plays an important role in social status hierarchies. (Note, however, that most of these recent studies were conducted on Western student populations; it remains to be tested whether these findings generalize to other populations.) Most recently, several studies in humans have begun to test the causality of the link between social, emotional and economic interaction behavior through acute testosterone administration. These studies have confirmed that an account of testosterone as a simple mediator of aggression falls short of the truth; instead, testosterone appears to have a more subtle and complex role in driving behaviors that tend to increase an individual’s motivation and ability to acquire and defend social status. The exact mechanisms by which testosterone has these effects remain elusive; however, recent research has suggested four plausible channels, namely threat vigilance, reward processing, fear reduction and stress resilience. The task of future studies will be to delineate the role of testosterone in social interaction more precisely and to test which of these candidate channels accounts for most of the observed behavioral variance.

So the bit about dominance actually seems to be the most established part of the testosterone story. Why point all this out? Because Wesley Smith--who I've met on several occasions, and found to be a nice guy--has misinterpreted my DeSmogBlog post. He seems to think that I blamed the conservative white male effect on social dominance orientation via testosterone. No: that would be silly. I merely raised SDO as one possible explanation among many other related contenders--the others being identity protective cognition, system justification, selective exposure to self-affirming information streams, in-group affirmation, and so on. Look, here's the story. We have conservative white men denying global warming at much higher frequencies than other segments of the population. Given that the science of climate is very well established--as is the human fingerprint on the global warming trend--this phenomenon cries out for an explanation. Why is this one group so inclined to fly in the face of scientific consensus? A lot of explanations have now been suggested, and some will presumably be put to the test, in standard scientific fashion. Should SDO be included among such tests? That's not my call; I will only note that published research already links it to maleness, conservatism, and anti-environmental attitudes. For much more on SDO, I recommend reading Robert Altemeyer's

The Authoritarians.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.