I’ve spent nearly a decade thinking about why people get stuck on climate change: stuck in debates, denial, what looks like indifference, and the awful discomfort that comes with the question “But what can I do?”
In search of answers, I’ve interviewed dozens of experts in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, economics, political science, and other fields — and many more Americans across a broad spectrum of political affiliations, income brackets, and ages. I’ve also read widely to tap the thinking of those who were once more commonly looked to for insights into human nature, such as poets, philosophers, and spiritual leaders.
What I’ve come up with is my own climate-centric version of Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Climate change has been my window into learning about human nature — or, at least, about what we humans do when faced with a challenge much greater than ourselves. The experience has also persuaded me that a better understanding of our own nature can help inspire a more effective response to what is happening to the natural world.
Here then are 10 things I’ve learned, along with some ideas about how these insights might be applied by those working on climate change:
1. We are overly optimistic about the future — our future, that is. Neuroscientist Tali Sharot has observed that when newlyweds are asked about their chances of getting divorced, they tend to say zero, despite the widely known fact that the odds are 50-50. We instinctively overestimate the probability of positive events and underestimate the probability of negative events in our own lives, she writes in The Optimism Bias, for two reasons: We think we have more control over our lives than we actually do, and we tend to see ourselves as better than average.
Applied to climate change, this means that I might think that you — and surely those poor Pacific Islanders — might be negatively affected but I’ll be OK. The problem, of course, is that this reflects a bias grounded in delusion. But don’t try to tell me or anyone else that. You’ll have a better chance of engaging others in climate action, experts like Sharot say, if you keep a laser-like focus on how climate change is affecting people now.
2. We can be blasé about the most important issues in the world because the global perspective is way beyond ordinary human scale. “Trying to convince people of the magnitude of the climate problem through large-scale statistics is essentially useless,” says Scott Huettel, chair of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. “The iconic global warming image of the polar bear on the iceberg is evocative precisely because it is one polar bear. Thousands of polar bears on a glacier that is receding would be irrelevant. Our brains cannot process it.”
Put another way, climate change seems like an abstraction because it is so much bigger than us. Humans relate to human-sized stories — the kind that speak to a family living in a home like ours, having dreams and struggles like ours, and maybe discovering one day that their home is on a map of places expected to soon be under water.
3. We are wired to refute imperatives. “If you say I have to act now on climate change, my first reaction will be, ‘No, I don’t,’” says Huettel. The reason, he explains, is that our brains are very well designed to come up with counterarguments. So no matter how good the reasons to switch to solar energy or demand that government take bolder action on climate change, people can always come up with reasons why they don’t need to do anything, such as: “If I don’t act right now, the world will basically be the same.”
Passing a law that requires people to change their behavior (especially if those changes are relatively easy to make) is one effective way around this. But short of that — just as in other aspects of human relationships — efforts to attract people to a cause are much more likely to yield a positive response than those that threaten or make demands.
4. We are vulnerable to peer pressure, especially about things that confuse us. We can watch the news, see photos of melting glaciers, even experience changing weather patterns. But if our neighbors aren’t doing anything about climate change, we’re unlikely to do anything either because, as much as we hate to admit it, we are herd animals who use social cues to adapt to our environment, according to Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
And if you doubt how powerful this instinct is, consider the experiment Cialdini conducted in which his team hung four different kinds of flyers on people’s doorknobs in San Diego, with the goal of inspiring residents to reduce their energy consumption. Three of the flyers directly asked them to reduce their energy use, offering three different motivations: save money, save the environment, and benefit future generations. But none of these appeals made a significant difference. Only the fourth flyer did, which read simply: “The majority of your neighbors are undertaking energy-saving actions every day.” The lesson: Don’t be afraid to appeal to our instinct to fit in.
5. We shy away from topics that remind us of our mortality but can be motivated to take action on behalf of beings more vulnerable than us. Janis L. Dickinson, a professor of natural resources at Cornell University, conducted an experiment a few years ago in which she asked 3,546 people (largely birders) if they would be willing to reduce their energy consumption after learning that climate change was, among other things, a threat to people or to birds, and then she compared the results.
It turned out that people were left unmoved by considering the threat to humans, but envisioning the threat to birds was another story. One possible reason, Dickinson says, is that considering climate change as a threat to humans may trigger thoughts of death (which we also tend to deny) whereas we like to think of ourselves as helping cute little creatures that seem to need us. This suggests that emphasizing the threat climate change poses to beloved animals could be an effective way of motivating people.
6. We perceive and respond to risks only when we feel them. While riding a roller coaster with my children one day, my youngest son took his hands off the bar and raised them in the air. The amusement park, I was sure, anticipated antics like this and did not expect people to remain in their seats by the strength of their grip. Still, I screamed, insisting he hold on because I was scared and, for the moment, that made the risk I imagined feel real. This, says Columbia University professor of psychology Elke Weber, is how we perceive and respond to risk: through our emotions more than an analysis of the facts.
When it comes to climate change, this means that no matter how much scientific and journalistic evidence we are presented with, we will not be moved to action unless something makes us feel the risk. As a result, it may be more effective to tell a short, detailed story that can evoke people’s feelings — for example, about an individual or family encountering some specific impact of climate change — than present yet more scientific evidence about the global or even national implications of a warming planet.
7. We are motivated more by hope than fear, at least in matters of social change. While research shows that fear is a more powerful motivator than hope when it comes to behaviors such as diet and fitness, inspiring social change seems to depend more on a positive vision of the future, according to the social movement, political science, and neuroscience experts with whom I spoke.
“This rhetoric about we only have a certain amount of time is a killer. It doesn’t make people engaged, it makes them give up,” says David Meyer, professor of sociology at U.C. Irvine and author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.
Sharot confirmed this, saying: “Our studies show that people don’t process information — they don’t pay attention — when what is being communicated is how things will get worse.” In a widely shared opinion, Meyer said the implication was clear: “You have to be hopeful.”
8. We are more likely to take action when we know precisely what we can influence. It would take a fantastic and deluded leap of the imagination to think that, as individuals, we can control rising seas, melting glaciers, or heat waves. As a result, when people hear messages that encourage them to broadly act on climate, it can strike them as unrealistic and trigger what psychologist Martin Seligman called learned helplessness — specifically because it appears so far outside their sphere of influence.
But, as Seligman and others have also found, it is possible to cut through learned helplessness (or apparent indifference) by appealing to what people think they can control, such as their own attitudes and behavior. For this reason, Huettel recommends emphasizing how people will feel about themselves, for example, after they take some realistic action, such as riding a bike or buying a hybrid.
9. We need to believe our actions will make a difference. “We have to have some sense of efficacy to motivate us to make changes in our lifestyle that are beneficial to the planet,” says Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and expert in decision making around risk. But when it comes to big issues like genocide or climate change, his research suggests that people can be demotivated by a sense of inefficacy as well as what he calls “pseudo-inefficacy” or the illusion of inefficacy.
For example, Slovic explained, some people fail to do anything because they think their action will be just a drop in the bucket, even though that drop is important. This finding suggests that it could be useful to explicitly speak to people’s suspicion that individual actions don’t matter and creatively show them how such drops add up.
10. We will continue to behave the same way we always have — even after we know it is problematic — until there is a realistic alternative. It is a safe bet that if you are reading this, you know that fossil fuels contribute to climate change and yet you continue, either directly or indirectly, to rely upon them, as most of us do.
But the reason for this, I have firmly come to believe, is not because most people don’t care, don’t get it, or have been duped by climate denial propaganda. I find a more believable reason in the words of Thomas Kuhn, widely considered one of the most influential philosophers of science of the 20th century. “People are unlikely to jettison an unworkable paradigm, despite many indications it is not functioning properly,” Kuhn said, “until a better paradigm can be presented.”
While individual behavior changes are essential, in other words, many of them remain dependent on systemic public- and private-sector changes. To fully succeed, we need a “moon shot”-style rapid transition to a clean energy economy, like the one proposed last week by a group of scientists and economists led by the U.K.’s former chief scientist, Sir David King.
But in the end, even the best of plans depends on understanding, communicating, and acting with a fuller appreciation not just of the state of the natural world but of our own nature, which means bringing today’s global climate story down to a human scale.
The good news is that doing so requires that we engage some of the best aspects of human nature, including our ability to be present in the here and now, to care more about people than facts, to be drawn to hope more than fear, to be willing to defend those weaker than us, and to focus our actions on things that are in our control — all the while being capable of believing in, even being thrilled by, the vision of a moon shot.
Lisa Bennett, coauthor of Ecoliterate, is a writer and communications strategist focused on climate change and what helps people rise to challenges great and small. She blogs at lisabennett.org/blog, and is on Twitter at @LisaPBennett.