Ask the ExpertScience

Ask the Expert: Climate Change

By October 9, 2019 March 13th, 2020 No Comments
Max van der Linden’s (Psychological Methods) question:

Dear Frenk,

Climate change is a complex and multifaceted problem related to population growth, energy, (geo)politics, economy, science, technology, agriculture, travelling and tourism. The Paris agreement from 2015 is the most ambitious global effort to adapt to and combat climate change so far. One of the targets is a significant cut of emissions by 2030. But CO2 emissions topped at an all-time high in 2018, so there is a lot of work to be done in the next eleven years. Can we rely for this solely on technological solutions? Or do we have to change our way of living? How could psychology contribute to this global challenge? What do you think are the most promising psychological strategies to change the behaviour of humans? Are you, as a social psychologist, optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to solve this problem? 

Max

Frenk van Harreveld’s  (Social Psychology) answer:

Dear Max,

Technological development alone is unlikely sufficient to adequately address these problems as a widespread adoption of such new technologies by consumers and companies amongst others is also required. More often than not, such adoption requires an economic investment. Whether it is electric cars, solar panels or heat-pumps, novel and sustainable technologies are considerably more expensive in the short-term than their less sustainable alternatives and it takes time before there is any return-on-investment. In other words: the temporal distance towards the benefits is much larger than the distance towards the costs. As many studies in behavioural economics have shown, people are much more sensitive to short-term than to long-term incentives.

The behavioural transition towards sustainability is obviously not only driven by economic incentives but also by concerns about the longevity of our planet. However, despite being one of the most important societal challenges of the 21st century, public engagement with climate change currently remains low. Although there are many examples of how climate change already affects us here and now (from heat waves to the prevalence of ticks), mounting evidence from across the behavioural sciences has found that most people regard climate change as a non-urgent and psychologically distant risk (spatially, temporally, and socially).

It is not surprising that psychological distance to climate change has led to deferred public decision making about mitigation and adaptation responses. Take the transition from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet, arguably a necessary step in the transition towards a sustainable society. While many consumers embrace this goal in global terms, it is unlikely to be very salient when they are shopping for groceries. They are likely driven by the short-term goals that are prevalent in that particular situation, like convenience and price. Moreover, if consumers do experience a sense of urgency about mitigating climate change, they often have limited insight into how to effectively translate this into behaviour. Think of plastic consumption, something many people want to reduce but often do not know how.

In our own research on plastic use, we have found that reducing the psychological distance to climate change (by means of visual cues that evoke specific emotions such as guilt) can be effective when a clear behavioural alternative is offered. In my view, despite the grave circumstances we are in, there is therefore some reason for optimism, as I believe that insight into the psychological determinants of consumer behaviour can contribute to a more effective way of communicating the necessity of the transition that is ahead of us.

Frenk

Frenk van Harreveld’s (Social Psychology) question is for Reinout Wiers (Developmental Psychology):

Dear Reinout,

My question is about addiction and whether the discussion about the origins of addiction may impact on the individual motivation to reduce it. Specifically, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on addiction as a ‘disease’ and on social determinants of addiction, like poverty and education. Opponents of this view, such as Sally Satel, argue that this may be an overly politically correct narrative that reduces the personal responsibility people have for their addiction, and thus also reduces the feelings of agency over combatting one’s addiction. What is your view on the addiction as a disease narrative and do you think viewing one’s addiction as a disease turns people into victims and thus reduces one’s motivation to fight it? Or is the motivation to engage in programs to combat addiction unrelated to views on what caused the addiction to begin with? 

Frenk

Max van der Linden’s (Psychological Methods) question:

Dear Frenk,

Climate change is a complex and multifaceted problem related to population growth, energy, (geo)politics, economy, science, technology, agriculture, travelling and tourism. The Paris agreement from 2015 is the most ambitious global effort to adapt to and combat climate change so far. One of the targets is a significant cut of emissions by 2030. But CO2 emissions topped at an all-time high in 2018, so there is a lot of work to be done in the next eleven years. Can we rely for this solely on technological solutions? Or do we have to change our way of living? How could psychology contribute to this global challenge? What do you think are the most promising psychological strategies to change the behaviour of humans? Are you, as a social psychologist, optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to solve this problem? 

Max

Frenk van Harreveld’s  (Social Psychology) answer:

Dear Max,

Technological development alone is unlikely sufficient to adequately address these problems as a widespread adoption of such new technologies by consumers and companies amongst others is also required. More often than not, such adoption requires an economic investment. Whether it is electric cars, solar panels or heat-pumps, novel and sustainable technologies are considerably more expensive in the short-term than their less sustainable alternatives and it takes time before there is any return-on-investment. In other words: the temporal distance towards the benefits is much larger than the distance towards the costs. As many studies in behavioural economics have shown, people are much more sensitive to short-term than to long-term incentives.

The behavioural transition towards sustainability is obviously not only driven by economic incentives but also by concerns about the longevity of our planet. However, despite being one of the most important societal challenges of the 21st century, public engagement with climate change currently remains low. Although there are many examples of how climate change already affects us here and now (from heat waves to the prevalence of ticks), mounting evidence from across the behavioural sciences has found that most people regard climate change as a non-urgent and psychologically distant risk (spatially, temporally, and socially).

It is not surprising that psychological distance to climate change has led to deferred public decision making about mitigation and adaptation responses. Take the transition from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet, arguably a necessary step in the transition towards a sustainable society. While many consumers embrace this goal in global terms, it is unlikely to be very salient when they are shopping for groceries. They are likely driven by the short-term goals that are prevalent in that particular situation, like convenience and price. Moreover, if consumers do experience a sense of urgency about mitigating climate change, they often have limited insight into how to effectively translate this into behaviour. Think of plastic consumption, something many people want to reduce but often do not know how.

In our own research on plastic use, we have found that reducing the psychological distance to climate change (by means of visual cues that evoke specific emotions such as guilt) can be effective when a clear behavioural alternative is offered. In my view, despite the grave circumstances we are in, there is therefore some reason for optimism, as I believe that insight into the psychological determinants of consumer behaviour can contribute to a more effective way of communicating the necessity of the transition that is ahead of us.

Frenk

Frenk van Harreveld’s (Social Psychology) question is for Reinout Wiers (Developmental Psychology):

Dear Reinout,

My question is about addiction and whether the discussion about the origins of addiction may impact on the individual motivation to reduce it. Specifically, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on addiction as a ‘disease’ and on social determinants of addiction, like poverty and education. Opponents of this view, such as Sally Satel, argue that this may be an overly politically correct narrative that reduces the personal responsibility people have for their addiction, and thus also reduces the feelings of agency over combatting one’s addiction. What is your view on the addiction as a disease narrative and do you think viewing one’s addiction as a disease turns people into victims and thus reduces one’s motivation to fight it? Or is the motivation to engage in programs to combat addiction unrelated to views on what caused the addiction to begin with? 

Frenk

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