The Psychology Behind Climate-Related Inaction

by Emily Segal

Though many people agree that climate change is a pressing issue in today’s world, very few of those people actually change their behavior to remedy this. In some cases there are structural factors limiting their ability to make decisions that would reduce their ecological footprint. For example, people on a low-income budget might not have the extra money to install solar panels. However, for those who are not restricted by structural factors, adaptation to a more sustainable lifestyle is not currently accepted on the scale it must be if those same people are serious about reducing climate change. Psychologist Robert Gifford suggests that there are three main reasons behind this inaction. Ignorance first will hinder people from altering their behavior because they are not aware of the problem at all. Secondly, once one becomes aware of the problem, various psychological processes may prohibit action. Lastly, after some action is taken, the person may think their action establishes they have done their part to reduce climate change when in reality they have not done enough, or they have done something that is counterproductive. To better understand this disconnect between awareness and lack of action, Gifford further divided the three main reasons behind inaction into seven psychological barriers preventing people from doing what they should in order to truly reduce climate change.

The first barrier is that as humans, we have limited cognition about the problem. The human brain has not evolved much since thousands of years ago when our primary concerns were short-term problems such as avoiding immediate danger. So, naturally, it is more difficult for humans to understand the danger climate change poses, which is thought of as more gradual and removed from our everyday lives.

Secondly, individuals’ ideologies may prevent them from adopting new behaviors. When someone has integrated a belief system into their life that does not support climate change mitigation, it is unlikely they can or will easily put the necessity of pro-environmental action above their commitment to their pre-existing beliefs.

The third barrier that inhibits the ability for people to change their actions (when they are aware that they should) is comparisons with other people. As social animals, people naturally compare their actions to those of the people around them and prefer conforming to social norms than changing their behavior and standing out from the crowd. So, unless a vast majority of individuals start investing in more sustainable lifestyles, the general public can validate their non-sustainable actions by arguing that they should not have to act responsibly to combat climate change since no one else around them is.

The fourth barrier is sunk costs. Once people have invested their money in something, even if it is harmful to the environment, it is difficult for them to part with whatever that is. Simply put, people do not like feeling as though they are loosing money, even if that is not necessarily the case. For example, economists have shown that over the long term, opting for public transportation or biking is more cost efficient than maintaining a fossil-fueled car. Yet, most people choose to hold on to their car, the sunk cost investment, because they cannot rationalize giving up something they had already spent money on. In addition, it can be difficult to convince people to change their habits once they are comfortable with them.

The fifth barrier, discredence, is based on the idea that individuals are less likely to follow advice from those they already perceive in a negative light. When people mistrust the scientists or government officials who are informing them about climate change, they can easily brush of their advice because they view the source of the information itself as faulty. Unfortunately, a result of combined mistrust and sunk costs is outright denial—that climate change is happening, that it is due to our actions as humans, or that any one person can help alter the course of climate change at all.

Perceived risks is the sixth barrier promoting inaction. As mentioned before, humans are comfortable with familiarity and are anxious about the uncertainty of changing their behavior. There are various different forms of perceived risk associated with living more sustainably such as functional risk (will my new electric car work?), physical risk (will riding a bicycle increases the likelihood of accidents?), and social risk (will others notice or judge me if I change my behavior?). Additionally, the financial risk of investing in sustainable products and the temporal risk that all efforts to reduce climate change may fail cause individuals to feel doubtful about changing their behavior at all.

Finally, the seventh barrier is limited behavior. People are more likely to do something that is easy to adopt, even if it only has a minor effect on climate change, rather than choose a more difficult option that would be much more effective. Additionally, once that one small action is taken, people feel as though they have already done their part in helping prevent climate change. They might even then do something that actually promotes climate change and not feel guilty about it because they have previously made an attempt to help reduce climate change.

Psychologists have come up with strategies that attempt to overcome these barriers. One such strategy includes studying specific barriers at the behavioral level, experimenting with intervention, and then analyzing the impact of that intervention. Another strategy would be to improve understanding of why people either support or oppose policies and technologies for limiting climate change and then use this new information to change the way climate change is addressed. Though it will not be easy, Gifford believes that it is possible for people to overcome the psychological barriers preventing them from acting to their full ability in terms of preventing climate change.

Gifford, R., 2011. The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist 66, 290-302.

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