Why fundamental problem of climate change is psychological

University of Amsterdam

Do we feel an urgency, do we think our actions matter, are we willing to accept sustainable alternatives? Social psychologists Cameron Brick, Frenk van Harreveld and Maria Zwicker study our behaviour in reaction to climate change. ‘The gains of sustainable behavior and the impact of climate change feel what we call “psychologically distant”. To bring the impact of climate change closer we need emotional appeals and narratives that connect to individual drivers behind behaviour. There is not one magic trick that will make us all change.’

woman recycling plastic

The paradox of a healthy planet

When talking about human behaviour and climate change, let’s first start with the paradox of the health of our planet. At a societal level, we would all be better off if everyone acted sustainably, but at an individual level, behaving unsustainably is typically the default, easier, less costly. How to explain this?

Cameron Brick
‘I study how individuals react to collective problems such as climate change.’ – Cameron Brick, assistant professor of Social Psychology.

‘This is not a unique paradox’, says Cameron Brick, assistant professor of Social Psychology. ‘We often see that our goals and interests are not aligned with our behaviour. We want to have loving, easy, good communication with our loved ones, but we fight. We want to save money for retirement, but we don’t. We want to eat healthy and live long, but we smoke and don’t exercise.’

What makes the climate paradox unique, explains Brick, is the enormous scale and how incredibly disconnected our current actions and the environmental consequences are. ‘Abstract and invisible threats aren’t terrifying to brains that evolved to solve local, experiential and imminent problems. It is very hard to think that our drive around the block affects something in Bangladesh 50 years from now.’

Psychological distant things have little or less impact

Frenk van Harreveld
‘I focus on the primary determinants of behaviour in the context of safety and sustainability.’- Frenk van Harreveld, professor of social cognition and behavioural change.

Frenk van Harreveld, professor of Social cognition and behavioural change in relation to sustainability and safety, strongly agrees with Brick. ‘The benefits of unsustainable behaviour (like price or convenience) are usually at an individual level and immediate. The gains of sustainable behaviour and the impact of climate change feel more far away. This summer, the North suffered from forest fires and floods, but for a very long time climate change has been something that felt what we call “psychologically distant”. And psychological distant things have little or less impact.’

Van Harreveld thinks that emotional appeals and narratives that bring climate change closer can help persuading people to change their behaviour. ‘But there is not one strategy that will lead to the best kind of behaviour for all. We increasingly know how important it is to understand individual drivers behind behaviour, such as attitudes and social norms.’

Yawning at the Apocalypse

In ‘Yawning at the Apocalypse’ Cameron Brick and colleague Sander van der Linden discuss the fundamental social dilemma in the context of climate change: do we choose the selfish option that comes with an immediate and high personal reward or do we go with the long-term socially cooperative choice that is in the best interest of society. Brick and Van der Lindenuggest ways to promote social norms around sustainability and to help people grapple with a largely faceless enemy that strikes gradually. Go to the article

When companies do not pull in their weight, consumers can experience injustice and be less willing to change

Maria Zwicker
‘I look at attitudes, perceptions and behaviour with regards to climate change, specifically in the case of bio-based plastics.’- Maria Zwicker, PhD candidate at the Social Psychology department.

Maria Zwicker, PhD candidate at the Social Psychology department, adds the diffusion of responsibility to this concept of psychological distance. ‘At an individual level, it is often difficult to see how your simple daily routines, like drinking a cup of coffee or washing your hair with shampoo, have a larger impact elsewhere. But there is also the issue of diffusion of responsibility at play here. How much of a responsibility do we have as citizens? People can wonder why they still have the choice to buy unsustainable products that contribute to the problem. And when seeing industrial areas blasting out smoke when driving by, it is hard to imagine how the plastic lid of your cup of coffee would make a difference. When consumers feel policy and companies do not pull their weight, they might experience this as injustice and feel less willing to change.’

Should we be more afraid?

Fear of climate change is often mentioned as trigger to make people change. Brick, van Harreveld and Zwicker warn that just making people afraid for climate change will not work, definitely not in the long term. ‘In the field of health behaviour there is a lot of research on using fear to change people’s behaviour’, explains van Harreveld. ‘But we generally see that the impact on behaviour is stronger if you also provide people with a sense of self-efficacy.’ And a sense of hope and an anticipated joy of building places that are better for us and our children, adds Brick. ‘We have had 30 years of doom about the climate. That is a part of the climate narrative but what we miss is getting excited about a future we really want for more reasons than keeping our feet dry.’

Thinking about other people around us influences prosocial behaviour

In several studies Zwicker found that guilt and negative emotions can trigger people to change, but not for the long term. ‘People do not like feeling guilty for long and will try to find ways to get rid of that guilt. Like justifying flying three times a year because they recycle their garbage and always bike to work.’

With other colleagues Zwicker investigated if positive emotions could stimulate sustainable behaviour in the long term. ‘Interestingly, it is not necessarily specific emotions that influence behaviour, but the mechanism through which those emotions work. The more people feel connected to other people and nature, the more prosocial behaviour can be stimulated.’

We need to first understand people’s beliefs and attitudes

Before moving towards behavioural change, we thus first need to understand and measure the conceptions, beliefs and attitudes people have and why people think the way they think, underline Brick, van Harreveld and Zwicker. ‘This will help to communicate responsibly and trustworthy about sustainable issues and connect to the different interests of people and their values. Why you insulate your house might be for different reasons than why you would eat less meat.’

At the department of Psychology researchers develop models to measure this. ‘Models that capture psychological, economic, social and other relevant factors that all contribute to behaviour in a certain context’, explains van Harreveld.

(Not) Doing the Right Things for the Wrong Reasons. The case of bio-based plastic

New technological solutions that bring sustainable alternatives to the market, hold promises for more a sustainable future. But for these to be successful, consumers must become aware of their benefits to create demand and a willingness to initially pay more. In four studies Zwicker, Brick and van Harreveld investigated participants’ attitudes towards and perceptions of fossil-based and bio-based plastic.

Participants reported to be very positive about the bio-based alternative and willing to pay more, but also misunderstood its qualities (overestimating bio-based plastic’s biodegradability) and were not fully aware of the damaging effects of the plastic producing industry (more than the plastic soup at the end). After receiving correct and full knowledge the participants kept their positive attitude and willingness to pay more.

The study shows the importance of understanding people’s attitudes and knowledge level and communicating both advantages and limitations of new technologies to avoid misuse of the product (tossing it in nature) and feelings of betrayal afterwards. Go to the article.

Make sustainable behaviour easier

As closing note, van Harreveld stresses to clearly differentiate between attitudes and behaviour. ‘We should not only focus on changing people’s attitudes, but also on lowering the threshold towards sustainable behaviour. When it comes to sustainability, a lot of people have positive attitudes and they want to do the right thing, but they find it difficult to translate this positive attitude into behaviour. Think of the amount of plastic you typically come home with after a trip to the supermarket while you really want to use less plastic. We should also make sustainable behaviour easier.’

Dr C. (Cameron) Brick

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Social Psychology

Prof. F. (Frenk) van Harreveld

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Social Psychology

M.V. (Maria) Zwicker

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Social Psychology

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