Psychology and Climate Change: An Overview

by Aron_Vallinder 2mo27th Sep 20195 min read3 comments

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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%.

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