Our psychological issues
Published 24th January 2010 - 5 comments - 2408 views -
What is going on inside people's heads when they aggressively engage in denial of obvious facts? Rather than looking at just denialists and their problems this is a more general overview of psychological factors that influence environmental issues.
Research by Dr. E.J. Milner-Gulland and colleagues at Conservation Science at Imperial College London have provided empirical data to support the “shifting baselines” theory. It shows that what we today see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly destroyed. And what we see as degraded nature our children will view as ‘natural’.
The phenomenon occurs because of several factors: knowledge is insufficiently passed on from generation to generation, people even forget how things used to be in the course of their own lives, changes occur over larger spans of time than the human life and species abundancy, migrations and extinctions aren't fully recorded.
“If we don't realize what we are losing we stand the risk of sleepwalking through the destruction of the natural world without taking action to remedy the situation.”
The American Psychological Association held a conference in Boston August 2008 to discuss the psychology of environmentalism and the lack thereof. Here is just four of the topics discussed.
People react differently to having their ecological footprint examined. Those not already environmentally inclined appears to react by giving up all efforts to protect the environment when faced with criticism. Whereas “greens” typically react by stepping up their efforts. (Psychologists and Amara Brook of California's Santa Clara University)
Too much inside time
People who spend at least 15 minutes active outside daily are happier, more energetic and more protective of the environment. And people spending much time inside consistently underestimate how happy being outside will make them. (Psychologists at Carleton University in Ottawa)
Misinterpretation of news
At journalism school our reporters get hard-wired to present “both sides of the story”. Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, one of the sides is usually a political conspiracy theory or at best one of several highly hypothetical scientific theories. But even adding a little bit of “skepticism” to news reports have been shown to significantly lower the fraction of people who understand the gravity of climate change. (Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick)
Of course, that's assuming the reporter knows the difference between a scientific observation of significance and a poll on his or her publisher's own website. Evidently, a lot of media is staffed with reporters who do not. That, or some journalists are in a brain washing campaign.
Praise of greens but no criticism of polluters
We tend to praise those persons among us who recycle. Bot we do not disapprove of those who do not. Only when more serious cases (i.e. improperly disposing of motor oil) tend to provoke us to scolding someone around us. Of course, if “negative feedback backfires” anyway...
There is “a whole zoo of psychological dimensions” to the reactions to climate change it is claimed in the ABC News story A List of 'Psychologies' in the Global Warming Story. Again, here is my selection of four of them:
Investing in future generations is a sign of sanity
So says modern psychotherapists! Concern for what the youth of today will have to deal with in the future, shows a natural and healthy empathy and emotional equilibrium. Biologically it makes sense too: lack of concern for future generations is not very sane.
Bad primate biology
As members of Homo sapiens we're hard wired to “fight, flight of freeze” in the face of danger. But that's meant for “savanna dangers”, not slowly creeping camouflaged dangers like climate change. Actual fighting is not an option (except if you want to build really high dams and apply many layers of sunscreen?), flight isn't either (considering the state of intergalactic space flight technology) and freezing would be suicide.
Amazingly, space flight is actually touted as something to invest in to save our species by some deniers. Let us hope evolution also comes up with more rational approaches.
Perl Harbor helped build a USA ready to fight Nazism, 9/11 helped the USA agree on fighting... something else. A similar occurrence of unifying events doesn't seem very probable. And if something does happen, it'll likely be much too late to meaningfully mitigate climate change as a whole.
US Americans have been polled to fit in six categories of climate change perception: Alarmed (18%), concerned (33%), cautious (19%), disengaged (12%), doubtful (11%) and dismissive (7%). People tend to stick to their beliefs and stick around people who share their belief. The extremists on one side have their own group mythology of a cabal of tax-hungry politicians and careerist scientists while some of the ones on the other might just be end-of-the-world psychos.
Research on refugees shows groups of reaction patterns that transcends ethnicity, religion, culture and race. It is speculated to be built into our genome to help soften the urge to mimic the reacts of others around you. (Psychologist Richard Mollica)
Assuming the least bad
Given bad news people tend to assume the least bad cause. On 9/11 many people claimed to have seen a small private plane crash into the WTC towers. Psychologists explain the tendency by a need to maintain one's “meaning system” in situations of crisis. A natural technique of denial to minimize the trauma. Our brain simply has mechanisms to stove away painful thoughts for later computation.
And it is constructive to avoid depression-like mentalities. But make-belief explanations are not. As an example of a better state of mind grieving the future loss of 20% of earth's species is mentioned.
And finally the sexism angle:
A testosterone issue?
“I've been debating the science with them for years, but recently I realized we shouldn't be talking about the science but about something unpleasant that happened in their childhood”.
In BBC / COP15: Climate 'scepticism' and questions about sex it is discussed how come most climate change skeptics and deniers seem to be men. Looking closer, they are not. Males and females are distributed approximately equally over the various approaches to climate change (see chapter on group psychology above), including those doubtful and disengaged – but in the group who entirely dismiss it; which has 63% males. This group is also characterised as follows:
“More likely than average to be high income, well-educated, white men... much more likely to be very conservative Republicans... strongly endorse individualistic values, opposing any form of government intervention, anti-egalitarian, and almost universally prefer economic growth over environmental protection... have a specialized media diet, with a higher than average preference for media sources that reflect their own political point of view.”
A “specialized media diet”, huh!? Perhaps these “high income” deniers actually provide the demand for self-brainwashing journalism (see chapter of misinterpretation of news above)?
So, even if not all dismissives are male, the group shows a stereotypical right-wing “male” psychological profile. Men also have a higher preference for taking risk, probably biologically based. Since the choice between action or not on climate change is a risk management issue (see my “Climate Change decision risk management matrix”) this observation fits with more males being willing to gamble with Earth at stake.
Finally, many deniers seem to be in serious lack of empathy with those who do care and even with those who suffer from the effects of climate change. Not a typical female problem.
Plus - just off the top of my head:
Of course, as already mentioned, some of those “alarmed” about the climate change crisis might just be so due to a general, irrational fear of the end of the world. Millions of people are getting accused of being such eco-escathologists but I never actually met one.
Similarly, some of those in denial about climate change and other environmental issues might just be so as part of their immense fear of something else. Common fears today certainly include the whole “islamophobia” trend. If fear of Osama bin Laden is overwhelming and the cornerstone of you political understanding all other sources of concern need be dispelled.
People's psychology is influenced by the weather too. Thus, by the seasons and climate change as well. It is self-evident from the existence of winter depressions. But it has also been shown that rain patterns correlate to both crime and violence (Ecowar / Correlations from weather to sociology).
Getting you home land washed into the sea is probably not a pleasant experience. But even increasing cloud cover might lead to increasing cases of “winter depressions” (lack of sunlight and resulting vitamin deficiencies). Which in turn might influence people's opinions on environmental and political decisions.
About the author
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