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Devil shift

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The Devil Shift Hypothesis in Environmental Governance

Devil shift is a cognitive bias in which political actors view their opponents as more powerful and their motives to be more "evil" than they are in actuality. They believe that "anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive."[1] This is common when two sides of an argument or a debate try to belittle their opposition by claiming they have the wrong information or are not educated enough on the topic (such as environmentalism). Devil shift appears where political actors systematically misperceive their opponents due to either fear of their opponent's power from previous losses or overestimating how different their views are from their own. As a result, devil shift systemically causes breakdowns in policymaking and implementation. It is especially true when various stakeholders from opposite positions regarding environmental issues bring multiple perspectives on environmental governance. Devil shift surrounds political disagreements with doubt and mistrust.

Devil shift is a common phenomenon in environmental policy because of how distant beliefs and motives surrounding the issues. Many opponents surrounding environmental issues have opposing intrinsic versus extrinsic values or opposing importance of economic gain versus ecological preservation. These varying beliefs are personal, fueling the "evil" lens in which opponents view each other. In environmental policy, adversaries often intentionally surround their opponent's argument with doubt, another facet of devil shift. Devil shift is observable in natural resource management, government agencies, and environmental policies.

Devil shift hypothesis

The devil shift phenomenon describes situations where political actors systematically misperceive their opponents. The argument assumes two distinct yet complementary aspects. First, policy actors put more weight on losses than policy gains resulting in an inherent fear of their opponents and make them see their opponents as more powerful than they truly are, resulting in an overestimation of the other side. Second, since maintaining a positive image of the opposition is usually tricky for actors and agents, they also overestimate the divergence of their opponents' values and policy beliefs. Sabatier stated in his original study "As a result, they evaluate them as more evil than they actually are."

The four main hypotheses of devils shift are

1. While attempting to protect public welfare, stakeholders challenge their competitors' goals or reasonableness While believing that they are reasonable and have positive motives.

2. While classifying their conduct as positive, stakeholders will gauge their adversaries' conduct and argument in more negative terms than other political actors would.

3. Stakeholders simultaneously believe their opponents are more influential than they sincerely are and view themselves as less influential, not observed by other political actors.

4. Devil shift creates a spectrum of distortion where the more distant the adversaries' beliefs are, the more "evil" their opponent will seem, causing them to exaggerate their competitions' negative aspects and influence.


Paul A. Sabatier proposed the term devil shift as a part of the Advocacy Coalition Framework in 1987. Devil shift has been examined restoratively in World War II tactics and past elections. Though it is commonly applicable, the devil shift phenomenon is currently understudied.[2]

Presence in Environmental Policy

Sabatier first observed devil shift in environmental policy when reviewing Culhane's 1981 study. Culhane's study argued that economic and environmentalist stakeholder groups believed that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service were "captured" by their adversary. Implying that their adversary is more powerful than they, and possibly that the agencies were biased in favor of their adversaries[3]. In a replication of Culhane's 1981 study, Davis and Davis (1985) described a relationship between economic users and environmentalists as perceiving each other as stronger than their peers in the policy community.[4]

The devil shift phenomenon is found commonly in global warming debate and policy due to the distance between views and values. Climate change arguments are driven by differing ideological and industrial concerns and fueled with emotion. 97-98% of scientists studying climate change believe that human activity is to blame for global warming.[5] Those who do not believe that global warming is caused by human activity claim that scientific research is wrong and perceives the scientists and those who agree with them as "evil." Global warming deniers claim that the earth is not warming, that if it is warming is not caused by human activity, or that the effects of global warming will be minimal. However, their arguments are directly refutable by scientific research.[6] Climate change deniers commonly attack the individuals they are arguing with personally rather than their opponent's actual position.[7] Climate change deniers resort to portraying their opponents as "evil" and attempt to create doubt surrounding the issue to avoid public consensus. Both opponents in global warming debates can fall into devil shift. Those who agree with scientific consensus tend to view their denying opponents as immoral.

In the debate regarding whether gray wolves should be reintroduced in Colorado, stakeholders commonly fall into devil shift. Disagreements in "different values associated with wildlife lead to different moral arguments for or against [this issue]."[8] Each side holds their beliefs based on which facts they wish to present for their perspective and can cause one side to believe the other is misinformed or uneducated. One side argues that wolves should be reintroduced for the sake of giving wolves the land where they once thrived, and the other side argues that wolves would cause too much harm to people in nearby areas. While both of these may be true, devil shift creates a sense of dissonance between the two sides, causing productivity to fall short since arguments slow down the governance process.

Devil Shift in Environmental Governance[edit]

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  1. Sabatier, Paul; Hunter, Susan; McLaughlin, Susan (September 1987). "The Devil Shift: Perceptions and Misperceptions of Opponents" (PDF). The Western Political Quarterly. 40 (3): 449. doi:10.1177/106591298704000306. Retrieved 13 April 2021. Unknown parameter |s2cid= ignored (help)
  2. FISCHER, MANUEL; INGOLD, KAREN; SCIARINI, PASCAL; VARONE, FRÉDÉRIC (2016). "Dealing with bad guys: actor- and process-level determinants of the " devil shift" in policy making" (PDF). Cambridge University Press Journal of Public Policy. 36 (2): 309. doi:10.1017/S0143814X15000021. Retrieved 6 April 2021.
  3. Culhane, Paul (1981). "Public Land Politics". John Hopkins University Press.
  4. Davis, Charles; Davis, Sandra (1985). "Interest Groups and the Implementation of Public Lands Programs, Conformity or Captive". Paper Presented at the 1985 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.
  5. Anderegg, William R. L.; Prall, James W.; Harold, Jacob; Schneider, Stephen H. (21 June 2010). "Expert credibility in climate change" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (27): 12107–12109. Bibcode:2010PNAS..10712107A. doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107. PMC 2901439. PMID 20566872.
  6. "Common Denier Arguments". State of California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Retrieved 21 April 2021.
  7. Weart, Spencer (2011). "Global warming: How skepticism became denial". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 67 (1): 41. Bibcode:2011BuAtS..67a..41W. doi:10.1177/0096340210392966. Unknown parameter |s2cid= ignored (help)
  8. Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistance. "Moral Arguments Related to Wolf Restoration and Management". Colorado State University.