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CO2 psychology not rocket science

by 8 Mar 2012Science2 comments

Lucy Lawless aloft on Arctic drillship

Sex-Appeal Not Rocket Science: While pro-business green-growth initiatives are making valuable inroads, good old-fashioned direct action executed with courage and élan works well for Greenpeace. image Greenpeace

As I said at the time, the psychology of climate change isn’t rocket science; it is far more complicated than that.

At December’s Mahurangi Club I shared a few ideas around psychology, climate change, and climate change denial. Here I will share a bit more psychology that may be helpful to those interested in bringing about action on the carbon dioxide problem.

If human beings were rational and their actions driven by the best information available, then the problems related to fossil fuel use would already be resolved. However, rather than being rational animals we are rationalising animals, and we are extremely resourceful at finding ways to justify our behaviour.

Facts only play a partial role in shaping people’s decisions and behaviour. Values and emotion are often far more important. Marketing, advertising and political campaigns explicitly exploit this psychological phenomenon when trying to influence behaviour. They tend to segment populations based on their core values and target messages related to their products or policies that tap into those core values. In fact most communication conveys implicit values, whether intentional or not.

Core values tend to be strongly held, as they are relationship and culturally based, well learned, and reinforced through selective attention and confirmation-bias over time. Our brains ‘light up’ when we receive messages that fit with our underlying values, even though we may not be really conscious of what these values are. They are such a part of us that we only pay attention to them when they are questioned or challenged.

Campaigns on environmental issues in general and fossil fuels in particular tend to focus on providing information and expecting that that information will be sufficient to bring about change. However unless attention is paid to the underlying values in the campaign message and the values held by the audience, then the chances of success are very limited.

The best way to address this issue is to be transparent about the values in the message. This brings into consciousness the values the audience members hold in term of evaluating the message as well as exploring its values implications. While core values are strongly held, new values can be built and reinforced over time—so long as the audience is not on the defensive.

Many other things need to be taken into account in campaigning to bringing about change, such as the human tendency to pursue self-interest, and the power of positive messages.

Any campaign needs to examine the values in the message they give and determine what those values are, how helpful they are, how essential to the goal they are, how they fit with the audience, and how they will be made explicit.

Psychology would suggest that a campaign on climate change mitigation based on austerity, giving up your car, no air travel, and growing your own food would have limited appeal. However a campaign based of creativity, innovation and an attractive exciting future is more likely to serve self-interest and the pursuit of personal dreams, while also addressing the environmental concerns. While ‘social justice’ may be a big motivator for many climate activists, having this principle as core to bringing about climate change mitigation is unlikely to be as affective.

It is no accident that political parties used slogans like ‘for a brighter future’ and ‘for a richer New Zealand’ in last year’s elections, tapping into individual aspirations and core values. Sustainable business campaigns such as Pure Advantage is also taking this positive psychological approach, while appealing to those who value free enterprise and market solutions.

There are a few other important psychological issues around bringing about action on the carbon dioxide problem. The first is that the human brain prefers to deal with only one crisis at a time. So while people are having other personal struggles and the media is full of woeful financial problems, we find it hard to pay attention to climate.

Secondly, there is a human tendency to avoid learning about complex problems. When we know little about something we tend to avoid learning more, and abdicate responsibility for dealing with it to ‘the government’. Unfortunately, politicians take a short-term ‘I need to get re-elected in three years’ view, rather than wanting to address problems with long-term implications.

The third is to do with attention and awareness. You cannot do much about things you are not paying attention to. Unfortunately, issues related to climate change have largely dropped out of the mainstream media in recent years.

It’s not rocket science; it’s more complicated than that.


So what can you do? Here are a few suggestions:

Addressing the carbon dioxide problem requires systemic solutions, and this requires leadership. We cannot rely on our politicians to provide that leadership unless we provide them with the necessary backbone.

To practice what I am advocating, some of the underlying values implicit in my message are:

  • We have a duty to look at the consequences of our actions.
  • Individuals can make a difference.
  • Don’t expect anything to happen unless we each do our bit.
  • Self-interest is natural.
  • Business is not a dirty word.
  • A ‘caring society’ is not a ‘nanny state’.
  • We need to work together to solve global problems.
  • While social justice may be important to many people, it is not essential to making progress on addressing climate.


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