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Developing and Testing the Psychological Distance to Science Model

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PSYDISC (Developing and Testing the Psychological Distance to Science Model)

Reporting period: 2021-08-01 to 2023-01-31

Why do some people refute the realities of climate change, reject evolution, or exhibit an unwillingness to get vaccinated? Public science skepticism - defined as the systematic rejection of empirical evidence of established scientific findings - represents one of the key societal challenges of the 21st century. Even though research into science skepticism has been rapidly developing in recent years, state-of-the art understanding of psychological factors contributing to science skepticism remains somewhat fragmented and limited. Antecedents of skepticism are often studied in isolation, which renders comparison across science domains difficult. Moreover, established antecedents of science skepticism are generally unmalleable individual difference factors such as ideological or religious beliefs. The current project aims to establish and test a construct that goes beyond the domain-specific, immutable, and mostly descriptive determinants of science skepticism. This construct is Psychological Distance to Science (PSYDISC). Psychological distance to science refers to perceptions of science in terms of its tangibility and relevance for the individual. In other words, PSYDISC pertains to how one evaluates science from the perspective of the self. The central proposition of the project is that perceived psychological distance to science in temporal, spatial, social and hypothetical terms contributes to science skepticism across various science domains. PSYDISC aims to offer a comprehensive approach to understanding and predicting science skepticism across domains, such as climate science, vaccination, genetic modification, evolution, and nano technology. The objective of the project is to provide a theoretically informed account of science skepticism and as such provide the scaffolding necessary for a long-term research agenda aimed at improving our understanding of the psychology of science skepticism.
The project team has constructed and validated the PSYDISC scale, which captures individual differences in psychological distance to science. The PSYDISC scale showed excellent predictive validity in relation to science skepticism. More specifically, after accounting for demographics and various ideological and knowledge predictors, PSYDISC predicted significant additional variance for climate change, vaccination, evolution, GM foods, and genetic editing skepticism. PSYDISC scores also predicted behavioral outcomes, namely COVID-19 vaccination status.

The team has also conducted several experimental studies in which PSYDISC was experimentally manipulated across various science domains. The results consistently show that reducing PSYDISC leads to lower science skepticism.

Furthmore, the team has set up a research line exploring stereotypes about scientists and how these shape trust. Building on various social evaluation models, results show that perceptions of competence but particularly morality emerged as the most important predictors of trust, which in turn increased the willingness to grant scientists influence in tackling societal problems. Using a data-driven approach, this research line also finds that there are substantial differences in stereotypes of scientists across various scientific disciplines.
The results obtained so far attest to the viability of PSYDISC as a construct that helps to understand and predict science skepticism across domains. Moreover, the experimental evidence suggests that PSYDSC can also function as a tool to reduce public science skepticism. The main goals for the second stage of the project are to test the validity of the PSYDISC scale across cultures and countries, to devise experience sampling studies that test the potency of repeated manipulations of PSYDISC in longitudinal experiments, and to further investigate the scientists stereotypes and trust line of work, including tying in these results to PSYDISC.