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The Mental Roadblocks to Climate Change

Social psychology finds a thread linking opposition to health care reform and climate change — and a possible way around the problem.
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As the year comes to an end, Congress is haltingly assembling a plan to reform the health care system, while world leaders scramble to effectively address climate change. Given that, on both issues, the status quo is clearly unsustainable, why is the process of making needed changes so problematic?

While the question of precisely who must sacrifice for the common good (you first, by all means) plays a huge role in both debates, another, less-obvious dynamic is also in play. According to New York University psychologist John Jost, humans have an innate desire to see the structure of their society as fundamentally just and, thus, a strong reluctance to making major changes.

To decrease personal unease and anxiety, "people are motivated to justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social, economic and political arrangements tend to be perceived as fair and legitimate," Jost wrote in 2005. Challenging that perception of fairness and legitimacy can provoke an intense emotional reaction, as those who have seen footage of the tea party rallies can attest.

In early November, wrote about how "system justification theory" plays a role in opposition to health care reform. This week, a fascinating paper on its relevance to the climate change debate was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The article, written by Jost, his NYU colleague Irina Feygina and Rachel Goldsmith of Reed College, describes three studies measuring the attitudes of American college undergraduates. They found a clear link between system justification tendencies — as measured by the participants' response to such statements as, "Society is set up so that people usually get what they deserve" — and the denial of environmental problems.

To hold on to their comforting belief in a just society, many people "seem willing to sacrifice not only their own long-term self-interest, but also the well-being of others, and perhaps even the planet as a whole," the researchers write.

But their final study points to a way to overcome this psychological roadblock.

"To the extent that we can encourage people to perceive environmentalism as a way of upholding [rather than threatening] cherished societal institutions and practices, it may be possible to transform resistance and inaction into constructive engagement," the scholars write. "The key, it seems, is to characterize pro-environmental change as 'system-sanctioned' — that is, as a desired, perhaps necessary, means of preserving the American way of life."

In other words, the pro-environment campaign with the best chance of overcoming internal resistance may be one that asserts preserving our natural resources is patriotic.

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