Climate Psychology: Why We Do What We Do PART 1
Published 19th October 2010 - 2 comments - 1221 views -
Every day, we are told to do our bit to fight climate change. Do this, don’t do that – but we still fail. So what if… what if, given the way our minds work, we are simply incapable of dealing with a problem the scale of climate change? Here, a psychological prism comes in handy.
There is no climate change fairy. It is here to stay, and it is here because of us. Folk wisdom says “Deal with the cause, not the symptoms”; so, as our behaviour is the root cause, the obvious solution is to manage it. But first, we have to understand why we do what we do and why we don’t do what we should.
We have to understand how we think.
Have you ever wondered why apocalyptic scenarios of the impossible future fail to impress us? Well, because we don’t really believe them – they are not a threat to us personally, and so we write them off as irrelevant. Fear can motivate behavioural change, but only if danger is already biting our feet.
Climate change is vague, abstract, and difficult to visualize, writes Adam Corner in the Guardian, so in the global North we don’t perceive it as a real threat. Research suggests that doomsday scenarios (“Save yourselves! The world is going to hell!”) won’t work, they’re only good for Hollywood.
In this sense, we are a very short-sighted species: we see only what we choose to, and if we don’t see it, then it probably doesn’t exist.
Another big challenge is the “Why should I change my behaviour – it won’t make any difference” attitude. Old habits are hard to change, as everybody who ever tried to get rid of them will know. We are comfortable with doing things our usual way, and the challenge of learning stuff all over again is just a pain, really.
Part of the problem is also the blame game – which of the major polluters should blink first, the US or China? and the transfer of responsibility – “It’s not my problem, it’s the problem of governments/industries/other people…”
Irresponsibility is so convenient – maybe we never really grow up? But that is no excuse, because human behaviour is still behind everything: “A zero-emissions bus will have zero passengers unless people decide to use it,” writes Corner.
Bad old habits...
What is worse, apparently, climate change contradicts the way we perceive and tackle problems. Because the rich world will not feel its strong implications in their daily life for some time to come, it cannot bring itself to understand the scale of the problem.
Professor Irene Neverla told Deutsche Welle that “The results of acting today will only be appreciated in seventy years time, which is beyond our imagination. That undermines our motivation.” Short-sighted species, no doubt.
Quite a fan of opposites, too. Remember the Deepwater Horizon? We didn’t ask BP to do what they did, but we asked them for oil, because we are addicted to it. So whose fault was it? In the lack of clear distinction of who is the wolf and who is the sheep in this climate saga, we choose not to march through the fog and simply back off instead.
And yes, the proximity principle: climate change is far away, happening to people you’ve never met in places you’ve never been to. A relative thing, hard to get to terms with – ah, why bother at all?
Built to fail
In a brilliant article in The New York Times, “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?”, Jon Gertner points out several insights into the way we function.
We are not limitless. We have our “finite pool of worry” which means we can only worry about a small set of issues. Come financial crisis or an aching tooth, and we throw such irrelevant stuff as climate change into the bin. We also tend to become numb to overused emotional appeals, just like we get used to violence on TV.
Also, we humans have shown “a frequent dislike for delayed benefits, so we undervalue promised future outcomes”. This means that if confronted with a choice of $10 now or $20 next year, we are happy to take it – exactly – now! In environment-speak, this is bad news: the well-being, or just being, of future generations worries us much less than our own satisfaction right here, right now.
Around and around, never forward?
The good news is that we are far more likely to choose the right thing if we are choosing it in a group. Our species are social beings; belonging to a particular group, be it your neighbourhood or knitting class, is very securing. So delayed benefits, such as those of a climate change properly fought, are more likely to be perceived positively if we are discussing them in a group, and not with ourselves.
When left alone, we tend to make the wrong decisions.
Given our performance on climate change so far (very low), some argue we need a strong kick in the ass to wake up and finally do it, just do it. Maybe we do. We have a “tendency to respond quickly to the stimulus of experience and emotion, but slowly to a risk that we process analytically and that may be rife with uncertainties.” The problem is, when a massive disaster strikes, it might be too late to reverse it.
But we are not only absent-minded and short-sighted – we are also award-driven. Research shows that we have to see the benefit of our action soon after we carry it out. So, for example, if we fly less, but still hear no news of polar bears repopulating the Arctic, we might conclude it isn’t worth it and come back to our bad old habits.
When are we going to realize that we are all in this together? After digging into the complex human psychology, Gertner had a terrifying thought: “I began to wonder if we are just built to fail.” Are we?
About the author
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