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The psychology of climate change

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By Jenny Garbis

· 6 min read

Setting the scene

The psychology of climate change is becoming increasingly important as we move towards a more sustainable way of life, where we burn fewer fossil fuels and invest in sustainable products and build circular economies.

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report and categorically stated climate change is real and human activities are the main cause. The Sixth Assessment Report is due to be released this year (2021) and cites ‘social mitigation’ innovations as a primary focus. Rachlinski (2000) released a review on the psychology of global climate change with clear findings too; loss aversion is a major part of our struggle to shift to a sustainable future. Rachlinski (2000) reminded us of what drives humans; progression and pleasure. By taking away the pleasures in life like taking away petrol vehicles (reducing the driving experience), reducing flights abroad (taking away holidays) and avoiding high-emission foods like beef, we are asking humans to give up things they enjoy.

Loss aversion

Whilst many people might be happy with alternatives, many laggards are reluctant to make these changes as it reduces their experience of life. Instead, what can be inferred by Rachlinski’s (2000) findings are that humans might be better off innovating with new (and better) versions of our current products and experiences. For example, instead of red meat, creating plant-based substitutes that are even more delicious and less expensive or creating solar powered planes that are more luxurious than jet fuel planes.

When I speak to people uninterested in climate change or the ‘non-believers’ they tell me things like, “electric vehicles take away the driving experience” or “I like meat too much”. These people care more about enjoying their experience of life than making sacrifices for the greater good. So the question is, what can be done?

As mentioned, we can create better versions of existing problematic products and services. For example, creating food that tastes better and is more environmentally friendly or creating cheaper energy contracts with the use of solar energy. Apart from this, there are a variety of behaviour change models that might come in handy to change consumer behaviour to reduce human impact on the environment. Firstly, behaviour is motivated by reward. Reward(s) can be either intrinsic or extrinsic and humans are only motivated by them if they genuinely believe they can obtain the reward by engaging in the behaviour. This tells us that humans need to think that their eco-conscious behaviour will actually make a difference.

For those that choose environmentally-friendly behaviours, it is likely they are receiving a reward of some sort. For example, they feel ‘good’ every time they recycle or they ‘enjoy’ running to work rather than driving (intrinsic) or they are paid by the government for the implementation of solar panels on their garage roof (extrinsic). What we can learn from this is to develop reward-based systems to encourage environmentally-friendly behaviour.

One of the major mistakes I think climate change campaigns make is framing climate change ‘negatively’. Headlines and scare-mongering tactics like “The Polar Bears are Dying” do not make people feel good and do not make them want to educate themselves about climate change. Instead, psychologists have ascertained that framing things in a positive light encourages the behaviour change. For example, the headline “Using your car 100 miles less per year would save X tonnes of CO2”. This is a positively framed statement and is more likely to get people to make the change.

The role of reinforcement and punishment in creating prosocial behaviour

The psychology of climate change helps us establish behaviour change models to reinforce or punish prosocial (environmental) behaviour. Reinforcement, punishment and extinction mechanisms can increase environmentally-friendly behaviour. Firstly, reinforcing positive behaviours (which links with reward) is highly likely to change behaviour. Humans seek out positive experiences and encouraging people with positive reinforcement is a proven way to encourage people to stick at a behaviour. An abstract example would be a recycling bin that gives you a compliment every now and then when you put the correct recycling into it. There are many different types of positively reinforcing behaviour and this example is ‘variable reinforcement’. This means the reinforcer happens from time to time (not every time) and encourages people to engage in the behaviour in the hope they will receive the reward. Variable reinforcement can be a highly powerful motivator and it is the reason for so many of us being addicted to our phones, as we are intermittently (or ‘variably’) reinforced by receiving a message notification on our screens.

Next up, punishment. What would happen if the government gave fines to everyone who did not change to an eco-friendly energy supplier within six months? How many people would make the switch to avoid receiving this punishment? This would be dependent on how severe the punishment was to the individual or household (for some £200 is pennies and to others it is their weekly spending allowance) and how people responded to this ‘positive’ punishment. When punishment is delivered in a way which causes discomfort to the individual, it can be highly effective. Although it is a proven behaviour modification technique, it is important to note punishment of any kind has not been found to be as successful as positive reinforcers and rewards (Gazzaniga, 2018). A type of punishment many have not heard of is the use of ‘negative punishment’. ‘Negative’ punishment is the removal of a pleasant stimulus. One way we can use this in the context of climate change is by punishing non eco-friendly behaviour by removing certain privileges. If a company implemented a program where every employee was given a bike to ride to work, but the bike was taken away if they did not ride it to work at least once a week, this would be an example of a negative punishment.

Extinction of negative environmental behaviours

Coming onto my last psychological tactic to support the move to a fossil fuel free world, ‘extinction’ of behaviour is a highly important consideration in any behaviour modification program. ‘Extinction’ of behaviour is the implementation of a system where the behaviour stops completely, rather than momentarily. Creating sustainable behaviour change is incredibly difficult and is the reason many people fail to keep the weight off or relapse into bad habits like taking up smoking again. While everyone has a slightly different brain, there are certain proven tactics that can extinct negative and unhelpful behaviours in humans. Removing all junk food from the house so that you don’t eat it is not creating an ‘extinction’ of unhealthy eating behaviour because as soon as the stimulus is put back into the cupboard, it is likely that person will eat the junk food. Instead, creating true behaviour extinction is about creating an environment where we can continuously be exposed to a stimulus but we have changed our relationship with that stimulus.

In the context of climate change, continually educating people about the benefits of giving up red meat and providing them with delicious meat-free alternatives that are cheaper could change their relationship with red meat and it may no longer be desirable to them. In addition to this new relationship, having a positive result every time we do not engage in that negative behaviour will ensure the behaviour does go ‘extinct’. In this example, feeling ‘good’ about not eating meat would offer an intrinsic ‘positive’ reward every time we choose not to eat a high carbon-emitting food. Even though ‘spontaneous recovery’ can happen (affectively ‘relapsing’), consistent negative association and positive reinforcement of the behaviour will help create sustainable change.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem

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About the author

Jenny Garbis is a performance marketing manager at Seedrs. She is also an avid writer with her own page. A recent graduate of the University of Sussex with a focus on psychology, she tends to address sustainability issues.

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