By Cameron Brick, MA & Michael Conrardy, MESM
Cameron Brick, MA is a social psychologist who studies climate change belief and behavior. Michael Conrardy, MESM is an environmental scientist and regulatory analyst, specializing in sustainability and greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting. In their article, the goal is to share perspectives from social psychological research on individual attitudes and GHG mitigation behaviors to advance the discussion of climate change solutions with the broader environmental community.
Anthropogenic GHG concentrations are rising and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007), “very likely” responsible for the increase in global temperature over the past fifty years. Future temperature rises are projected by the IPCC to cause broad species extinctions, water resource crises and public health disasters. However, public belief, interest and engagement with climate change lag far behind the science. How do we bridge the gap? As scholars and students of psychology, public policy and environmental science, we frame climate change as a collective-action emergency and present research that identifies cognitive and social factors determining when people will act.
As climate science becomes refined and projections develop higher confidence, discussions of economic policy and engineering solutions still dominate the discussions of climate change solutions. We see a gap in the climate change dialogue centered on the way people’s brains function, what they are actually thinking and their corresponding actions.
Why don’t people believe the evidence about climate change?
Does belief actually lead to behavior change?
What behavioral changes do we need to prevent catastrophe?
These critical questions are hotly debated among environmentalists. They bear on many topics from social psychology, including persuasion, people’s sense of control, and the complex relationship between attitudes and behavior. Social psychologists do empirical, quantitative research in this area. We can offer developed theories of perceptions, attitudes, emotions and motivations, as well as under what conditions they lead to behavior change. This toolkit gives us a more targeted question: How can we predict and influence public attitudes and behaviors on climate change?
There is a danger here, and we want to make it explicit. People already have a folk psychology, a sense of how people and minds work, and so you rarely hear board members say, “Hey, we don’t know what we’re doing in this information campaign. We need to get a research psychologist on the team.” However, what we discover about mind and behavior is often counter-intuitive and the key mental processes that predict behavior are frequently unconscious. Although people are able to articulate their beliefs and preferences accurately, they are surprisingly bad at recognizing the causes of their behavior. There is no substitute for rigorous, empirical science to uncover these causal factors.
An evidence-based model of behavior by Darley & Latané describes when people help others during an emergency. Their studies are focused on interpersonal situations, like whether an individual would help someone who is lying on a sidewalk. Beyond that interpersonal level, it is actually a beautiful model for our larger question: why would a person assist in any collective action emergency? We can use this model to explain reactions to climate change, as Frantz did in 2009.
Projected GHG concentrations are high and rising and will increase global temperature. The primary source of increased concentrations of GHGs is the use and combustion of fossil fuels. International policy negotiations currently focus on preventing more than a 2°C in temperature rise. As GHG emissions continue to rise, that goal looks impossible.
Based on the projected future oil extractions the major energy companies are already selling on the market, the International Energy Agency says that in the absence of major policy change, average global temperature will rise a frightening 4°C by 2100 and an apocalyptic 6°C in the long-term.
Clearly, we have a problem. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks just finished in Qatar. Did we hear more about that in the news, or more about General Petraeus? Why don’t we pay attention to climate change negotiations? Our brains are just not tuned to handle time-delayed collective action problems like global warming, a point we’ll return to later.
Stage Two of emergency response requires knowing: is the problem an emergency?
There is a projected and devastating sea-level rise: for example, the island nation of the Maldives is expecting to lose their entire country under water. There’s the possibility of increased forest fires; more severe drought and resulting famine; increased severe weather like Hurricane Sandy; flooding – the projections are striking. It’s controversial what specific effects the warming climate is having right now, but warming is implicated in current weather patterns and melting ice sheets, and the public warnings of climate scientists have become increasingly loud. Even with mitigation of current GHG emissions, climate change is poised to alter multiple environmental systems we depend on and it could take decades and extensive funding to adapt to the changes. Given the potential consequences, we have enough certainty to compel immediate action, following the precautionary principle.
Using scientific evidence and the precautionary principle, climate change has cleared Stages One and Two: it’s a problem and it’s an emergency.
“Take-home message: if you want to increase belief that climate change is a problem and an emergency, perhaps think less about climate science and more about attitudes and rationalization.”
Yet, you could broadcast this info tomorrow on every TV around the world and there would be little or no change in behavior. Why not? To answer that, consider the theory of emergency response. These first two stages, noticing the problem and identifying it as an emergency, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for attitude and behavior change.
The 2012 U.S. Presidential debates didn’t even discuss climate change. International negotiations are mostly about business and security and not focused on climate change. This is because people largely aren’t interested. Why doesn’t climate change get our attention?
In order to notice the problem, you have to receive information and understand it. This step is necessary but not sufficient for change. Notice that people can direct what information they receive and that at this stage people can stop the process by disengaging. The first practical lesson is that environmentalists must capture people’s sense of threat, but not frighten people TOO much, or they’ll disengage.
What about interpreting the problem as an emergency? People also reject climate change because of other commitments in their life. If climate change is real, that might mean we need to change how we live. If we don’t want to change, that can influence our thinking all the way back up to whether we consider the issue a problem. Broadly, you can call this motivated reasoning.
We want to highlight political identification as a barrier.
Psychologists recognize that people have a complex set of social identities based on their age, gender, religion and many other groups. These memberships drive attitudes, feelings and behavior. Social identity exists whenever a person feels they are a member and feels a sense of psychological identification with a group.
Political party is a powerful social identity that informs how people think about themselves and the world. Following this very brief description of social identity theory, consider how political party shapes how we process incoming information. It’s not easy to go against your political party, because you can be derogated and excluded from the group. It’s uncomfortable to feel social influence and not go along. Political identification matters in evaluating information on climate change.
Let’s consider how attitudes can affect responses to new information. Support for environmental policies was not always a partisan issue. Conservatives were proud of Roosevelt’s protection of the national parks. Conservation is inherently and historically a conservative ideal. However, Reagan attacked environmental policies and regulations as wasteful and that began our modern divide. The graph (below) shows the percentage of people who say that the news of global warming is exaggerated: there is an increasing divide between Republicans and Democrats.
The first is confirmation bias. If a person has a strong belief about a topic, presenting them with new information isn’t going to change their attitude. This is because new information is interpreted in the light of existing beliefs. Often, people don’t even attend to news articles or sources that discuss climate change. They can entirely avoid recognizing the problem.
A result is that educated, good, reasonable people come down on opposite sides of belief in climate change. Climate change denial seems incredible to environmentalists, but from the psychological perspective, it is congruent with social identity theory and motivated reasoning.
The elaboration likelihood model of Petty & Cacioppo has a similar implication. This theory of persuasion describes the conditions under which people effortfully process content: they need both ability and motivation. Often, people lack motivation and just evaluate truth content from peripheral cues like message source and perceived expertise of the speaker.
Finally, consider cognitive dissonance. Imagine that you have always believed that climate change was a hoax and a new study comes out suggesting it is real. Believing this message is personally threatening. It means you were wrong before. That dissonance is uncomfortable, and much of the time, we’ll look for flaws in the new study and persist in our beliefs just so we don’t have to face it. Climate scientists seem amazed that people don’t believe the evidence. To understand how this happens, we have to examine how people process social information.
Critically, notice that all of these processes happen outside of awareness. Also note that Democrats and Greens are subject to all the same social identity pressures and in this case, may accept climate change information too readily, without deeply processing it, if it comes from a trusted source.
Even if you personally believe in climate change, do you still experience these effects? Of course you do. Motivated reasoning is shaping you in other ways. Let’s say you take long-distance flights every year, an activity with very high emissions. How do you rationalize that activity? Perhaps your carbon footprint is the same size as a disbelieving Republican. What then is your belief worth?
Belief is not the only concern: we must also study behavior change. A clever experiment by Dickerson et al. was designed to convince Californians to take shorter showers. All of their participants agreed that saving water was important. But only those participants who experienced cognitive dissonance felt compelled to change their behavior to alleviate the discomfort of dissonance. Only when their commitment to saving water was made public and they felt dissonance between their commitment and their actions, did they change their behavior.
Take-home message: if you want to increase belief that climate change is a problem and an emergency, perhaps think less about climate science and more about attitudes and rationalization.
Stage Three of the model is feeling personally responsible to act. Self-interest is a key psychological factor in this stage.
Game theory will help illustrate the role of self-interest. Game theory is the study of strategic decision-making. So game theory and behavioral economics more generally, are fields that work together with social psychology in studying human decision-making.
Barrett et al. recently investigated climate change negotiations using game theory. They modeled the conditions under which climate negotiations will fail. They use a threshold for GHGs, just like the current international discussions about a 2°C temperature rise. They found that uncertainty about the location of the threshold causes negotiations to fall into a prisoner’s dilemma where actors retreat to self-interest and cooperation fails. This type of finding is important so we can avoid the pitfall of self-interest in our negotiations.
There is another way to view the self-interest problem: free riding, where some members don’t contribute to a common goal. Psychologists have identified the features of a group that will make it more likely that each member will put in less effort. One factor is the size of the group: larger groups create more free riding. Second, the visibility of each person’s commitment matters, such that lower visibility means more free riding. So imagine that you could tell when walking around who was polluting more than their peers. That would encourage less pollution per person, as opposed to when one’s actions are invisible. Slving climate change is like riding a giant tandem bicycle with hundreds of countries and thousands of giant companies and billions of people. In terms of taking personal responsibility, you can see how theories of free riding are critical if we need each entity to put in effort.
Returning to the model, we are now at Stage Four. We’ve been exploring two angles of this stage: first, how to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and second, how to get others to address climate change. Environmental scientists, engineers and advocates have written extensively about what we can do. For example: build alternate energy infrastructure, eat less meat and dairy, use alternate transportation, control waste, and stop deforestation. What may not be obvious is that the public needs to understand how to accomplish those actions and to know that it will make a difference. The same social psychology principles discussed here (motivated reasoning, the elaboration likelihood model, and cognitive dissonance) could be utilized to ensure the message of what to do gets across.
Finally in Stage Five: Action!
Is it possible with climate change? It is our collective task to get the public through Stage Five.
We are convinced that individual action won’t be sufficient to mitigate climate change. Analyses by Gernot Wagner and others suggest that individual actions like recycling can’t accomplish enough to solve the broader problem and can even distract us from making needed structural changes. Individually, our self-interest will lead us to ignore the issue and wait for others to solve it. We need regulations and large-scale cooperation in our democratic institutions. To solve our collective action problems, we need a system where we are incentivized to cooperate, and that system should be informed by psychological science to be effective.
We need broad policy change.
We believe the public can be persuaded to act. We have solved major collective action problems before, ones that had the same barriers of self-interest and free riding. The collective, cooperative transformation of the United States during World War II was incredible. People accepted food rationing, career changes, and even the ultimate sacrifice, all against individual self-interest. The Montreal protocol mitigated the growing hole in the ozone layer by banning CFCs and continues to be a stunning success, uniting governments and the agile businesses that were poised to make new, less damaging refrigerants and aerosols. We hope the green energy industry, transportation behaviors, agricultural practices and waste management all go the same way.
How can social psychology help shift public belief and future policy? Psychology describes the calculations and processes that go on in people’s heads. If we know the way people think, we can better predict and influence their behavior for good. We’ve covered a few domains of interest in social psychology: attitudes, persuasion, motivation, and behavior. This article has focused mostly on individual psychology and mitigating behavior, but future work can examine attitudes and how to further stimulate political engagement.
The problem of climate change affects us all. It’s time to transcend being amazed that people don’t believe in the evidence and instead look to empirical science of attitudes and behaviors. Social psychology can help. We can identify key predictors of people’s behavior and move towards effective negotiation paradigms and informational interventions. Together we can move beyond self-interest and work towards the common good: a healthy, sustainable planet with stable temperature.
Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., Kao, C. F., & Rodriguez, R. (1986). Central and peripheral routes to persuasion: An individual difference perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(5), 1032–1043.
Dickerson,C. A., Thibodeau, R., Aronson, E., & Miller, D. (1992). Using Cognitive Dissonance to Encourage Water Conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(11), 841–854. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1992.tb00928.x
Frantz, C.M., & Mayer, F. S. (2009). The Emergency of Climate Change: Why Are We Failing to Take Action? Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 9(1), 205–222. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2009.01180.x
Gifford, R., Kormos, C., & McIntyre, A. (2011). Behavioral dimensions of climate change: drivers, responses, barriers, and interventions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 2(6), 801–827.doi:10.1002/wcc.143
Cameron Brick earned a BA and MA in psychology and in 2013 is a doctoral candidate in social psychology with Professor David Sherman in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He holds a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, presented research at national conferences and in South Korea, and teaches undergraduate courses.
Michael Conrardy received his Master’s degree from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB. Mr. Conrardy has worked at Conservation International researching UNFCCC policy and economic analysis for REDD+, and participated in a collaborative effort analyzing Low-Carbon Communities at the University of Nanjing in China. Currently, Mr. Conrardy is a consultant addressing assorted environmental issues, GHG emissions inventories and climate change mitigation strategies.
The views expressed in ecoView are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Ecology Global Network. EGN does not verify the accuracy or science of these articles.