The biggest hurdle for the climate change fight isn’t technology – it’s human psychology
The human brain is hard-wired to tackle immediate threats. If you have ever experienced a break in or a dog chasing you, you know within an instant that your body kicks into gear before your conscious brain even knows what is occurring2. This mechanism is based off our evolutionary biology. We are great at managing tangible and present threats. The ones we are not so great at managing? Slow-motion ones. The greatest slow-motion threat of all time? Climate Change. We burn fossil fuels, spew greenhouse gases into the air, expedite global pandemics and drive ourselves to extinction at a painfully slow pace over the course of many generations. Although we can almost all agree climate change is occurring and humans are the number one cause, for some reason public opinion lags behind this scientific consensus. The reason for that? We are not as rational as we believe we are2. The same mental shortcuts that make us really good at running away from a robber or an angry dog, make us lousy complex, long-term decision makers. If you don’t believe me, take a look at your last paycheck. How much did you put towards retirement vs. discretionary spending?
There are many types of these mental shortcuts, and all of these shortcuts contribute to our daily decision making, not just decisions based on climate change6. Our mental shortcuts, or heuristics and cognitive biases can explain just about every decision we make. From why we fail at fad diets, to why we are more likely to listen to our neighbor than a scientific advisor on safety precautions surrounding a global pandemic7. There is a whole field of study dedicated these shortcuts: behavioral economics. This field describes the ways that we are very predictably irrational and elucidate the gap between what scientists know, and what we actually think2.
One shortcut that greatly impacts our ability to act swiftly on matters of climate change is a shortcut known as place attachment. Places that we know, love and spend time at, are places where we give our attention, money and efforts. We don’t care so much about places that are unfamiliar and foreign5. When we are intimately confronted with the effects of climate change in places that we reside in or frequent, we are more likely to make deliberate actions towards improvement. If it doesn’t happen in our backyard or a friend’s, we are unfortunately, unlikely to do anything about it. When we only hear about far off lands where glaciers are melting or rainforests are being chopped down it doesn’t incite immediate action2.
To build on this shortcut, we place most of our attention on things that are happening in the present and not so much in the future. You might recognize this idea if you made an impulse decision to get a tattoo or buy an expensive luxury car without fully understanding the long-term ramifications of your decision: taste change and depreciation. This kind of hyperbolic discounting or decision making defies logic and common sense based on the need for immediacy4. We think we are rational about making trade-offs on our present wants and desires in the future but you, your mom and Queen understands this phenomenon all too well, we know what we want and we want it all.
Another heuristic or cognitive bias is the availability heuristic, which is closely related to hyperbolic discounting and place attachment6. In addition to our attention being focused on things that are happening in the moment, we also tend to worry more about things that are immediately accessible to us6. We are exposed to so many terrifying images and ideas about climate change, the risk might be small to improve things but we perceive it to be large, overwhelming even. This is amplified when we take into account the number of people that humans can actually conceptualize as human beings1. This is called the monkeysphere which suggests that the “human brain is only capable of maintaining meaningful relationships with a limited amount of people. Anyone outside of our personal monkeysphere are just one-dimensioned characters who we cannot conceptualize as people”1. This number caps at around ~1501, so all of your thousands of Instagram friends? Fuggedaboutit.
We care about things that are happening right now, to people we know, in places we are familiar with2. Most people think that climate change doesn’t fall into any of these categories. Climate change might be happening in our children’s futures, in foreign lands, to people we don’t know or interact with. But by knowing a few of our mental shortcuts, it’s not too surprising to realize that most people don’t care about it7. We are preoccupied with the here and now, so we should frame our conversations around this and not the glaciers melting or the extinction of certain species we have never seen. This is important, but it will not incite change5. We should instead talk more about the impact climate change has our everyday lives, both big and small.
Another layer of our cognitive biases involves our world views and how we really like ideas that reinforce our reality of the world2. This makes sense, our ideas and shared values have been vital to the success of communities since the dawn of evolution. Our similar beliefs and proclivities serve as a social glue, we still exist in these social groups and depend on these common ideas to tie us together5. When we are confronted ideas that conflict with our world view, we tend to reject them. This is called, cultural cognition3. Our ideas are so firmly rooted in our identity of the world that even in the face of overwhelming evidence we can’t admit our faults or even digest facts.
Most people think that the way to convince others of climate change is to show them the damning scientific proof, surely then they would have to agree with facts and come on board. If it were that easy think of where the world would be right now.
There are two types of thinkers: communistic and individualistic. The former world view believes that we are all “in this together” whereas the latter sees life as more of a solo journey5. For those that think in individual terms, the more they learn about the science behind climate change, the less they care about it. This is because it conflicts with their world view. As is turns out, even though we think the mind operates more like a scientist in rational pursuit of objective truth, when we are confronted with an idea that conflicts with our view of the world, our brain behaves more like a lawyer and we develop an agenda, rather than an approach for understanding6. Our brain tries to undermine the arguments that attempt to disrupt our view of the world. This is called motivated reasoning. This motivated reasoning is why psychologists and behavioral economists are able to easily predict your view on climate change, not based on how much you know about science, but based on your world view or ideology2.
Climate change becomes a very challenging topic for individualistic world view thinkers to digest based on their ideology that unfettered markets are the best for society, when in reality, climate change is the greatest market failure of all time2. When we burn fossil fuels, it creates negative externalities. These are harms caused by an activity that we don’t necessarily pay for. When we burn fossil fuels, it can cause asthma, heart disease, cancer, etc. Because this isn’t priced into the market value, we might burn a lot more of it than would be burned otherwise if it were priced to account for healthcare costs2. When everyone is burning fossil fuels unchecked based on self-interest, it is a market failure that we call the tragedy of the commons and it creates an outcome that is negative for everyone2.
The good news is there is a solution to this, we can act collectively to price carbon appropriately or put caps on its use2. We can address this market failure and to someone with a communistic world view, this falls in line with what they think of the world as they have a shared willingness to regulate businesses and work collaboratively to solve problems6. But, if you are more of an individualistic thinker, this idea of collectivism is abhorrent and the lawyer in your brain is ready to fight.
The way we can deal with a duality of world views is to create a popular broad-based movement that mobilizes both types of thinkers2. Climate advocates need to learn how to address varied thinkers and appeal to their world views, not their own. Climate change is a hugely dynamic and complex issue, and because of that, there are many lenses in which we can view it through. This is helpful as it can speak to many types of thinkers. Climate change could be an opportunity for America to once again rally the world against an existential threat, like in WWII or an opportunity to follow God’s commandment to be steward of the earth, or an opportunity to free ourselves from fossil fuels and put human ingenuity to work on an energy revolution2. If we want to convince people on this issue, we need to talk through their perspective as it will help calm down the lawyers in our brains. Another way to do this is to hear messages from people we know and trust. A conversation with a familiar face or family member will be much more powerful than anything a politician can give7.
We have seen how the antiquated wiring of our brain can make us irrational, can make us bias, and can make us stubborn. But in this old wiring, may also lie our salvation. We are wired to trust each other, to communicate our ideas, identities, and beliefs through stories. Every one of us has a story about how climate change has impacted them and everybody has a friend or family member that will listen to that story. Although our old wiring with these ancient evolutionary roots makes us recalcitrant if we all leverage that power of trust and storytelling, we can create the popular movement we need to stop climate change.
- 4, J., & Arazu, A. (2016, June 04). The monkeysphere – the reason for the injustice in our society? Retrieved January 04, 2021, from http://lundtan.lundaekonomerna.se/the-monkeysphere-the-reason-for-the-injustice-in-our-society/
- Baumeister, R. F., Read, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). Time and Decision Economic and Psychological Perspectives of Intertemporal Choice. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
- Cultural cognition project – Cultural Cognition Blog – America’s “alternative facts” on climate change. (n.d.), from http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2017/1/27/americas-alternative-facts-on-climate-change.html
- Haith, A. M., Reppert, T. R., & Shadmehr, R. (2012). Evidence for Hyperbolic Temporal Discounting of Reward in Control of Movements. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(34), 11727-11736. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.0424-12.2012
- Lange, P. A., Joireman, J., & Milinski, M. (2018). Climate Change: What Psychology Can Offer in Terms of Insights and Solutions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 269-274. doi:10.1177/0963721417753945
- Six Advantages of Hyperbolic Discounting…And What The Heck Is It Anyway? (2020, January 24). Retrieved January 04, 2021, from https://neilpatel.com/blog/hyperbolicdiscounting/
- Wolske, K. S., & Stern, P. C. (2018). Contributions of psychology to limiting climate change. Psychology and Climate Change, 127-160. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-813130-5.00007-2