Psychology and Climate Change: An Overview

This post sum­marises some psy­cholog­i­cal re­search on cli­mate change at­ti­tudes and be­havi­ours. The write-up is part of a pro­ject on the “psy­chol­ogy of longter­mism,” an at­tempt to un­der­stand how peo­ple think about the fu­ture in or­der to figure out how to com­mu­ni­cate longter­mist ideas more effec­tively. Given that cli­mate change ap­pears to be the most well-stud­ied topic in this space, I de­cided to start there. For the full bibliog­ra­phy and ex­tended quotes from the works cited, see this com­pan­ion doc­u­ment.

Psy­cholog­i­cal bar­ri­ers to cli­mate change action

Markow­itz & Shar­iff (2012) re­view six rea­sons why cli­mate change poses sig­nifi­cant challenges to our moral judge­ment sys­tem:

  1. Ab­stract­ness and cog­ni­tive com­plex­ity. The ab­stract na­ture of cli­mate change makes it non-in­tu­itive and cog­ni­tively effort­ful to grasp.

  2. The blame­less­ness of un­in­ten­tional ac­tion. The hu­man moral judge­ment sys­tem is finely tuned to re­act to in­ten­tional trans­gres­sions.

  3. Guilty bias. An­thro­pogenic cli­mate change pro­vokes self-defen­sive bi­ases.

  4. Uncer­tainty breeds wish­ful think­ing. The lack of defini­tive prog­noses re­sults in un­rea­son­able op­ti­mism.

  5. Mo­ral trib­al­ism. The poli­ti­ciza­tion of cli­mate change fosters ide­olog­i­cal po­lariza­tion.

  6. Long time hori­zons and far­away places. Out-group vic­tims fall by the wayside.

Gifford (2011) pro­poses seven cat­e­gories of psy­cholog­i­cal bar­ri­ers to cli­mate change ac­tion:

  1. Limited cog­ni­tion. This in­cludes not know­ing about the ex­tent of the prob­lem or its solu­tions, a bias to­wards op­ti­mism, and not feel­ing in con­trol.

  2. Ide­olog­i­cal wor­ld­views. For ex­am­ple, be­lief in free mar­ket ide­ol­ogy is a sig­nifi­cant pre­dic­tor of dis­be­lief in global warm­ing.

  3. Com­par­i­sons with other peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, when told about how much en­ergy the av­er­age mem­ber of their com­mu­nity used, home­own­ers tended to al­ter their own use to fit the norm. (Of course, this can work both ways.)

  4. In­vest­ments. This in­cludes fi­nan­cial in­vest­ments such as car own­er­ship, in­grained habits such as ve­hi­cle use, and val­ues and goals that con­flict with cli­mate change miti­ga­tion.

  5. Dis­cre­dence. Mistrust in ex­perts, re­act­ing strongly against policy ad­vice that seems to threaten their sense of free­dom.

  6. Per­ceived risks of change. This in­cludes not only fi­nan­cial risks, but also so­cial and psy­cholog­i­cal ones.

  7. Pos­i­tive but in­ad­e­quate be­hav­ior change. This in­cludes cli­mate-re­lated be­hav­iors that are easy to adopt but have lit­tle im­pact on green­house gas emis­sions, and a re­bound effect whereby the gains made by one de­ci­sion are diminished or even re­versed by a sub­se­quent one.

See here for fur­ther de­tails. Gifford et al (2011) and Gifford, Lacroix & Chen (2018) build on this frame­work.

Strate­gies for com­mu­ni­cat­ing cli­mate change effec­tively and pro­mot­ing action

Markow­itz & Guck­ian (2018) re­view the liter­a­ture on cli­mate change com­mu­ni­ca­tion. They re­port that one of the most con­sis­tent and clear find­ings of this work is that dis­agree­ments about cli­mate change (e.g., whether it is an­thro­pogenic, whether it is a se­ri­ous prob­lem, whether we should take costly ac­tion to com­bat it) are very in­fre­quently dis­agree­ments over “the facts”. In­stead, at their core, dis­agree­ments about cli­mate change are fun­da­men­tally tied to the im­pli­ca­tions the is­sue holds for so­ciety and the way it is or­ga­nized, in­clud­ing how we pro­duce, use, and pay for en­ergy and other re­sources. The im­pli­ca­tions of this core find­ing for in­creas­ing the effec­tive­ness of cli­mate change com­mu­ni­ca­tion efforts are both profound and sim­ple: throw­ing more and more facts about the prob­lem at peo­ple is ex­tremely un­likely to shift minds and hearts in any ap­pre­cia­ble way. They pro­pose the fol­low­ing seven ways of im­prov­ing cli­mate change com­mu­ni­ca­tion:

  1. Know what mo­ti­vates the au­di­ence. Iden­tify and un­der­stand how val­ues, iden­tities, wor­ld­views, etc. differ­en­tially shape au­di­ences’ en­gage­ment with cli­mate change and tai­lor com­mu­ni­ca­tion efforts to their needs.

  2. Figure out what the au­di­ence already knows. Start where peo­ple are at: pre­ex­ist­ing be­liefs and ex­pe­riences with cli­mate change and cli­mate-re­lated events shape how in­di­vi­d­u­als in­ter­pret and filter new in­for­ma­tion.

  3. Con­front false in­for­ma­tion, do not re­in­force it. Dis­lodge false be­liefs with sim­ple, fac­tual al­ter­na­tives, and lev­er­age pre­emp­tive warn­ing mes­sages to pre­vent the up­take of mis­in­for­ma­tion.

  4. Find frames that “fit” au­di­ences’ needs. Pack­age and con­nect cli­mate change in­for­ma­tion to the needs and val­ues that mat­ter to your au­di­ences (e.g., pub­lic health, re­spon­si­bil­ity, lo­cal im­pacts).

  5. High­light solu­tions. En­courage en­gage­ment and build in­di­vi­d­u­als’ feel­ings of effi­cacy and hope­ful­ness by fo­cus­ing on solu­tions.

  6. Tell sto­ries. Use co­her­ent nar­ra­tive forms and in­clude story el­e­ments such as char­ac­ters and prob­lem re­s­olu­tion to make mes­sages more com­pel­ling and re­lat­able.

  7. Lev­er­age the right mes­sen­gers and com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels. Iden­tify and work with ex­ist­ing so­cial net­works, com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels, and trusted “in-group” mes­sen­gers.

Markow­itz & Shar­iff (2012) pro­pose six strate­gies that com­mu­ni­ca­tors can use:

  1. Use ex­ist­ing moral val­ues. Frame cli­mate change us­ing more broadly held val­ues that ap­peal to un­tapped de­mo­graph­ics.

  2. Bur­dens ver­sus benefits. Fo­cus mes­sag­ing on the costs, not benefits, that we may im­pose on fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

  3. Emo­tional car­rots, not sticks. Mo­ti­vate ac­tion through ap­peals to hope, pride and grat­i­tude rather than guilt, shame and anx­iety.

  4. Be wary of ex­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tors. Push­ing ac­tion on cli­mate change as ‘good busi­ness’ may back­fire.

  5. Ex­pand group iden­tity. In­crease iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with and em­pa­thy for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and peo­ple liv­ing in other places.

  6. High­light pos­i­tive so­cial norms. Lev­er­age hu­man sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to so­cial in­fluence and ap­proval.

Bain et al (2012) study how to pro­mote pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tion in cli­mate change de­niers. They find that pre­sent­ing peo­ple with sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for the re­al­ity of cli­mate change, or em­pha­sis­ing po­ten­tial risks, is not an effec­tive strat­egy. In­stead, the em­pha­sis should be on how miti­ga­tion efforts can pro­mote a so­ciety where peo­ple are more con­sid­er­ate and car­ing, and where there is greater eco­nomic/​tech­nolog­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. Bain et al (2016) find fur­ther sup­port for this: by em­pha­sis­ing the “co-benefits” of cli­mate change ac­tion (i.e. the wider benefits to the com­mu­nity that do not nec­es­sar­ily de­pend on halt­ing tem­per­a­ture rise), one can pro­mote more pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tion. Note though that this ap­pears to be in ten­sion with third strat­egy pro­posed by Markow­itz & Shar­iff above.

In a similar vein, Fein­berg & Willer (2011) provide ex­per­i­men­tal ev­i­dence for the claim that cli­mate change skep­ti­cism is in part ex­plained by the fact that in­for­ma­tion about the po­ten­tially dire con­se­quences of global warm­ing threat­ens deeply held be­liefs that the world is just, or­derly, and sta­ble, which re­sults in a de­creased will­ing­ness to coun­ter­act cli­mate change. There­fore, less dire mes­sag­ing could be more effec­tive for pro­mot­ing pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of cli­mate-change re­search.

Pahl & Bauer (2013) study the effect of per­spec­tive tak­ing with a hu­man vic­tim of en­vi­ron­men­tal change on en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gage­ment. Tak­ing the per­spec­tive of the vic­tim in­creased a set of three be­hav­ior in­di­ca­tors (in­ten­tions, time spent en­gag­ing with in­for­ma­tion ma­te­ri­als, and num­ber of brochures col­lected) com­pared with two con­trol groups. The re­search pro­vides ev­i­dence that per­spec­tive tak­ing with other hu­mans can be a pow­er­ful trig­ger of en­gage­ment with en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. Thus, per­spec­tive tak­ing could be used to en­gage peo­ple with psy­cholog­i­cally dis­tant is­sues such as cli­mate change, for which the full con­se­quences will only be­come visi­ble at a much later point in time.

Which fac­tors in­fluence pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern and be­havi­our?

McElwee & Brit­tain (2009) found that op­ti­mism for the per­sonal fu­ture and op­ti­mism for a more global world’s fu­ture were re­lated yet dis­tinct vari­ables among re­sponses from 156 un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents. World Op­ti­mism pre­dicted lower lev­els of pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal at­ti­tudes whereas Per­sonal Op­ti­mism did not af­ter its shared var­i­ance with World Op­ti­mism was re­moved. Per­sonal Op­ti­mism (but not World Op­ti­mism) was as­so­ci­ated with Con­sid­er­a­tion of Fu­ture Con­se­quences, a mea­sure of lo­cus of con­trol, and other mea­sures of op­ti­mism and pes­simism.

Milfont et al (2012) provide a meta-anal­y­sis on the role time per­spec­tive play in in­fluenc­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gage­ment. In­di­vi­d­u­als who adopt a past time per­spec­tive tend to have highly mean­ingful men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the past, and to en­gage in re­flec­tive, con­tem­pla­tive re­con­struc­tion of past ex­pe­riences. In­di­vi­d­u­als who adopt a pre­sent time per­spec­tive tend to have a con­crete, em­piri­cally cen­tered rep­re­sen­ta­tion of pre­sent events. Fi­nally, in­di­vi­d­u­als who adopt a fu­ture time per­spec­tive tend to have a highly mean­ingful men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of fu­ture events, and to be pul­led to be­have by these rep­re­sen­ta­tions. This long-term time per­spec­tive is char­ac­ter­ized by plan­ning and achieve­ment of fu­ture goals. Re­sults showed that the as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween time per­spec­tive and pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal be­hav­iors were higher than those for pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal at­ti­tudes. The find­ings in­di­cate that fu­ture time per­spec­tive seems to play an im­por­tant role in in­fluenc­ing in­di­vi­d­u­als’ at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iors to­wards greater pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern. Pahl et al (2014) re­view re­search on time per­cep­tion and tem­po­ral as­pects of de­ci­sion mak­ing in so­ciol­ogy and psy­chol­ogy in the con­text of cli­mate change.

Clay­ton et al (2015) re­port that much di­ver­sity in un­der­stand­ing can be at­tributed not to what we learn about cli­mate change, but to how, and from whom, we learn: the sources of our in­for­ma­tion and how we eval­u­ate those sources. In gen­eral, di­rect ex­pe­riences of events re­lated to cli­mate change are more pow­er­ful than sec­ond-hand in­for­ma­tion in in­form­ing at­ti­tudes and be­havi­our.

Gifford & Nils­son (2014) re­view the per­sonal and so­cial in­fluences on pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern and be­havi­our, grouped into 18 fac­tors. See here for fur­ther de­tail on these. Hines et al. (1986/​87) is a meta-anal­y­sis on fac­tors that in­fluence pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern and be­havi­our. Bam­berg & Möser (2007) repli­cate and ex­tend this meta-anal­y­sis.

Note how­ever that many of these stud­ies rely on self-re­ported pro-en­vi­ron­men­tal be­hav­ior, rather than ob­jec­tive mea­sures. Kor­mos & Gifford (2014) performed a meta-anal­y­sis to quan­tify the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween self-re­ports and ac­tual be­havi­our. They found that the cor­re­la­tion be­tween be­havi­our in­ten­tions (one kind of self-re­port) and ac­tual be­havi­our was .45, mean­ing that the over­lap be­tween in­ten­tions and ac­tual ac­tion is about 20%.