Processing the papal encyclical through perceptual filters: Pope Francis, identity-protective cognition, and climate change concern

Cognition journal cover.

Abstract

Previous research suggests that when individuals encounter new information, they interpret it through perceptual ‘filters’ of prior beliefs, relevant social identities, and messenger credibility. In short, evaluations are not based solely on message accuracy, but also on the extent to which the message and messenger are amenable to the values of one’s social groups. Here, we use the release of Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical as the context for a natural experiment to examine the role of prior values in climate change cognition. Based on our analysis of panel data collected before and after the encyclical’s release, we find that political ideology moderated views of papal credibility on climate change for those participants who were aware of the encyclical. We also find that, in some contexts, non-Catholics who were aware of the encyclical granted Pope Francis additional credibility compared to the non-Catholics who were unaware of it, yet Catholics granted the Pope high credibility regardless of encyclical awareness. Importantly, papal credibility mediated the conditional relationships between encyclical awareness and acceptance of the Pope’s messages on climate change. We conclude by discussing how our results provide insight into cognitive processing of new information about controversial issues.

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