Sometime in the last decade, as mainstream science has outlined the man-made causes of climate change and as much of society has begun to accept that view, global warming has turned into a people problem as much as a technical and scientific one.
People have fed the increase in greenhouse gases, and people can reverse that trend through consumption choices large and small. One of the central paradoxes of climate change is not why the world is warming, but how people are handling it: If polls show so many believe a crisis is unfolding, why are so few doing anything about it?
NASA physicists probably couldn't answer that question. The people who can have rarely been asked. They are the behavioral experts, the psychologists who have long studied the disconnect between our attitudes and our actions, and who are now realizing themselves they have a role to play in climate policy.
If you consider that solving climate change requires adjusting human behavior on a vast scale — getting people to drive hybrids, weatherize their homes, cut their energy use, consider their carbon footprint — what's needed is a more effective campaign to get them to do so. Brow-beating isn't working. Psychologists know guilt is a terrible motivator. And moral arguments don't work on people who don't share your morals.
If a more nuanced understanding of human behavior has been used to push all kinds of products and ideas throughout the history of Madison Avenue, couldn't we use the same insights psychologists study and "Mad Men" apply to better sell the world on energy-efficient appliances and new environmental social norms?
Attitudes Don't Matter
Two years ago, the American Psychological Association began thinking about this idea. Janet Swim, a social psychologist at Penn State, suggested the APA create a task force to examine the relationship between psychology and climate change, two topics that weren't readily connected for many APA members, let alone the broader climate science community.
"When I first thought about this, I had a limited range of what psychology could do," Swim said. "I had no idea we'd end up with a 240-page report."
The report, released this summer, outlines what psychology gets about why we don't act on climate concerns and suggests research queries to guide policy in the future. It urges APA members to present what psychology can offer as "the missing pieces in climate change analyses."
The report assesses the current challenge as one of almost irrational human behavior.
"Just as one might puzzle over the collapse of vanished regional civilizations like the Maya of Central America, the Anasazi of North America, the Norse of Greenland, and the people of Easter Island," the report reads, "future generations may find it incomprehensible that people, particularly in industrialized countries, continued until well into the 21st century to engage in behavior that seriously compromised the habitability of their own countries and the planet."
Psychologists thankfully don't find this so incomprehensible. Many people fail to turn a theoretical concern for the climate into tangible action because the problem is imperceptible to anyone without climate-modeling software or satellite images of Antarctica. That leaves many relying on mediators like journalists they may not be inclined to trust.
Psychologists understand that we also weigh concrete sacrifices in the present more heavily than distant, abstract benefits in the future. It's difficult to ask someone to give up his SUV now to make the planet more livable in 50 years.
"I sum it up a lot of times by saying, ‘It's not easy being green,'" said Paul Stern, director of the National Research Council's Committee on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change and another contributor to the report. "You might want to be green, but it's hard to find out how, or sometimes you can't get the products you want."
It may also be hard to appreciate that our individual actions could put a dent in a problem so big. And climate change comes with inherent uncertainty, an excuse often used to continue putting personal good above the collective good. Scientists have an obligation to frame findings in the context of some endemic uncertainty, but in the process they contribute to one of the mechanisms we use to justify inaction.
Much of current climate policy not only ignores these factors, but is based on oversimplified assumptions about human behavior: that if government puts a financial incentive on the table, people will take it; that if a useful new technology emerges, people will adopt it; that if scientists preach the severity of the crisis, people will react accordingly.
"Some of this stuff is just sort of bad psychology, and some of it is not psychology at all," Stern said. "There are implicit underlying assumptions that are known to be wrong."
Many people like to believe they don't bow to social norms, but psychology suggests we all do. A more sophisticated view of behavior says that it's not just what we perceive will benefit us that matters, but how we believe other people will perceive us. Experiments in cleaning up roadside litter have found that removing most trash only marginally reduces future littering. Cleaning up every last bottle and candy wrapper, however, establishes the norm that littering is not something people do. People, therefore, stop doing it.
Another experiment found that a recycling program was more effective when one person was appointed head of the recycling group.
"Attitudes don't matter," said George Howard, a Notre Dame psychology professor. "There's been a lot of research that says it doesn't matter if you're pro- or anti-recycling. The most important thing is if you have somebody looking over your shoulder."
An affective home weatherization program might point out how many of your neighbors have already taken advantage of a free energy audit, or how much money they're all saving that you're not. Environmental campaigns that try to motivate people by portraying how little others are doing may backfire; they instead paint a world where the norm is inaction.
Psychological research also warns that fear, guilt and sacrifice — the three tenets of many environmental campaigns — are tough sells. Psychology's recommendation here reads straight out of a marketing handbook: Reframe the choices.
One study found that 65 percent of Republicans were willing to pay a carbon dioxide reduction fee on an airline ticket when it was labeled a "carbon offset." Only 27 percent were willing pay for a "carbon tax."
The very problem itself has already been reframed once, from "global warming" to "climate change," a broader moniker that also makes the prospect seem less like a boon for places like Siberia that might not mind a little more warmth.
Psychologists could help reframe behavior change as benefits to the environment instead of sacrifices to ourselves. They could take advantage of what we often forget about the importance of social norms. They could design programs that are easier to participate in than not, in the way that opt-out organ donor programs are more successful than opt-in ones. And they could explain, in detail specific to your home and your budget, why a government tax credit to put solar panels on your roof would benefit you and how long it would take you to recoup your investment.
"If psychologists would find ways of educating people so that in the end they say, ‘Wow that sounds like a great decision, put them on my house,'" Howard said, "that would be a hell of a contribution."
Marketing is obviously not a new idea.
"Companies have moved past ‘here, we have a washing machine, come buy it if you want it,'" said Susan Clayton, psychology professor at the College of Wooster and another task force member. "It's not just presenting it; it's telling people about it, selling it."
But the thought that psychologists would help sell behavior change benefiting the environment has touched a terrified nerve with some. Congressman Brian Baird, D-Wash., sponsored a bill this summer to create a social and behavioral research program within the Department of Energy for just the kind of research the APA is advocating. The bill passed out of the House Committee on Science and Technology along party lines before the August recess and then took a strange leap onto cable news.
"Government is gearing up to conduct one of the biggest scientific experiments ever, and you get to be a part of it," conservative Fox News commentator Glenn Beck warned his audience. He described the bill — to be funded at a relatively modest $10 million a year — as an attempt at mind control out of the realm of science fiction like the Orwellian classic 1984 and complete with a behavior modification "czar."
"There's sort of a misunderstandings, a fearful overreaction to getting psychology involved," Clayton said. "It's not like it's specific to conservation psychology or psychology about climate change, it's part of the way people respond to psychology in general. Somehow, when advertising is trying to persuade you of something, that's normal; when psychology gets involved, it's scary and inappropriate."
That misunderstanding, though, may be rooted as much in the counter-marketing of influencers like Beck, for whom a Prius is a marker of the ideologically impure. "They're going to study us and find ways to essentially trick us into driving crappy hybrids," he said on the show, "and I bet that's just the beginning."
Psychology's response is to appreciate the difference between a Glenn Beck viewer and a Sierra Club member, and to tailor the message accordingly. One challenge is to bring the behavior in line with the people who already are believers; for the non-believers, Clayton suggested, psychology isn't so much interested in changing their minds as changing their behaviors. Fuel-efficient cars may appeal to them to save money, not to save polar bears - and if they never draw a connection between the two, that's OK.
Swim also cautioned that there exists more than just a dichotomy between the environmental faithful and non-faithful. One Yale study pegged the American public into six groups in our reaction to climate change: the alarmed (18 percent), the concerned (33 percent), the cautious (19 percent), the disengaged (12 percent), the doubtful (11 percent) and the dismissive (7 percent).
Psychology has to combat other public relations problems, chief among them the perception — hard problems are solved only by the natural sciences — that may have kept climate policymakers away from the field so far. But the political fear may be hardest to overcome.
The DOE did conduct behavioral research in the '70s, in the midst of a different energy crisis. President Reagan killed the program, pushing many researchers like Stern out of the field, and pushing most of the work on the topic in the last decade into Europe. As a consequence, Stern said Baird's bill would create this type of federal research at the DOE for the first time in 25 years.
"If the DOE had a different self-image, it could have done a lot of this stuff out of the political limelight, and it would have been fine," Stern said. "Their self-image is that they're a technology agency, they develop hot new technologies. They're not about implementation, not about this messy stuff, people and so forth."
Psychology may have to start then with this pitch: selling Washington on why it has at least some of the answers.
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