Climate Change and Psychology

by Harrison Chotzen

In march of 2015, a group of psychology professors from the College of Wooster published an article describing the value of psychological research in combating climate change. The group argues that while significant research has been done on institutional actors (i.e. governments and industries) and technological, demographic and economic trends, far less has been done on the individual level, which they claim, through the adoption and support of ecofriendly technologies and policies, ultimately drives societal change. The article suggests that psychological research should be a more frequently utilized in climate change mitigation and adaption discussions, arguing that the social insights it provides are ideal tools for crafting clear and effective programs and policies. As evidence for this argument, the article discusses three primary areas in which psychological investigation makes positive contributions to climate change research.

The first segment discusses the psychological factors that influence public perceptions of climate change. Research confirmed that, for the most part, directly experiencing climatic change has a more prominent effect on a person’s concern for the issue than receiving information second-hand. Thus, explaining why local, observable conditions tend to have a heavier influence on public concern than more distant and indirect forms of climate science exposure. Additionally, psychological studies show that social and political allegiances have more to do with a typical American’s stance on climate change than any other influence. This is a concerning statistic considering sociopolitical identities are often shaped by biased mass media outlets.

Next, the authors describe the place of psychology in behavioral drivers and mitigation responses. For years, communities have attempted to incentivize sustainable behavior by allowing households to observe their energy usage in relation to that of their neighbors, a tactic known as the ‘block leader’ approach. However, recent field experiments show that this can backfire, as a handful of participants were more willing to increase consumption if they were out-performing their neighbors, indicating the important role of social norms in mitigative behavior and motivation to initiate change. The article also references a psychological complex known as the ‘not in my backyard’ response, referring to a behavior in which people become attached to certain pieces of land (known as “place-bonds”). Research shows a complex relationship between place-bonds and response to the implementation of energy technologies, such as offshore wind farms and power lines that may interfere with the immaculate quality of the location. Thus, renewable energy sources cannot be evaluated by objective costs and benefits alone, the psychological impacts of the projects must also be considered.

Lastly, the article explains the impact of psychological research on the effects of climate change on human well-being and adaptation responses. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency, extent, and intensity of extreme weather events (i.e. heat waves, drought, and flooding) and natural disasters, thus taking a toll on both mental health and quality of life. This is a serious effect of climate change that is often overlooked and will have a significant impact on the livelihood, economic opportunity and sociocultural condition of people all over the world. Recent evidence suggests psychological research could play a huge role in helping society adapt to extreme weather conditions. For example, it has been observed that farmers who discuss climate change and innovation with their peers are more likely to incorporate sustainable innovation into their practices. Combating the consequences of climate change is not a task that should be dominated by economic models. And while financial planning is imperative, the is a significant social component to the process, in which psychological research offers ample potential.

Clayton, Susan, Patrick Devine-Wright, Paul C. Stern, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Amanda Carrico, Linda Steg, Janet Swim, and Mirilia Bonnes. “Psychological Research and Global Climate Change.” Nature Climate Change. N.p., 24 June 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v5/n7/full/nclimate2622.html

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