ScienceSocietySpiegeloog 403: Global

The Brain and Climate Change: Are We Wired to Self-destruct?

By April 15, 2020 No Comments

How is it possible, that despite our ability to comprehend the world in a way that no other species can, we still can’t seem to wrap our minds around climate change? Research suggests we aren’t wired for it.

How is it possible, that despite our ability to comprehend the world in a way that no other species can, we still can’t seem to wrap our minds around climate change? Research suggests we aren’t wired for it.

Image: Markus Spiske

If you take a look around you, odds are that almost everything you see, save, maybe, your houseplant, is the result of human innovation. What was once someone’s idea now lies before you in material form, thanks to the few trillion electrochemical signals flying around between our ears that make us the creative, analytical, and social creatures that we are – or so we like to think. While it is easy to dote about the beauty of human cognition, there are still many ways in which our brains can fail us, and the two are by no means mutually exclusive. The adaptive cognitive features that helped us survive in and shape our environment may also be leading to its destruction. In this way, cognition can be a double-edged sword when it comes to fighting climate change.

From an evolutionary perspective, it would be an understatement to say that we have a strong preference for the planet to not die. Rationally, it would hold that a threat so urgent to the survival of our planet, and therefore our species, would be faced with much resistance. Yet, year after year, record-breaking carbon emissions tell a different story. How is it that our beliefs and our actions are so at odds with each other? Researchers argue that we simply aren’t wired to act against climate change (Johnson & Levin, 2009). 

“While most of us do not lack awareness about the issue, the consequences may still seem abstract or distant because we do not see or feel them directly.”

Humans are cognitive misers, which means that we prefer to expend the least amount of mental resources as possible (American Psychological Association, n.d.). The mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that we use to ease daily functioning may lead to cognitive biases which work against us when it comes to taking action against climate change. Heuristics are not inherently bad – without them, our cognitive load would be too high to effectively deal with the amount of information we receive. This is not to say that we cannot act against climate change because our ‘wiring’ will not allow us to – it does, however, mean that it will take more effort. In fact, specific awareness of the cognitive biases that prevent us from taking climate action can measurably reduce their effects on decision making (Sellier, Scopelliti, & Morewedge, 2019).

The first problem lies within the problem itself. Climate change is highly complex, making it difficult for us to conceptualize in a concrete manner. We are best suited to respond to sensory threats in our direct environment, which drives our reluctance to approach abstract problems such as climate change. While most of us do not lack awareness about the issue, the consequences may still seem abstract or distant because we do not see or feel them directly. A survey showed that “Americans perceive climate change as a moderate risk that will predominantly impact geographically and temporally distant people and places” (Leiserowitz, 2005).  Given that the United States ranks second in global carbon emissions (Global Carbon Atlas, 2019) while making up only 4.25% of the population (Worldometer, 2020), there is a clear tendency to underestimate the gravity of the problem, which may be driven by a lack of perceived threat. Our evolutionary predisposition to respond to direct sensory threats may be preventing us from effectively prioritizing climate change as a threat to our wellbeing.

“Given that it is often difficult to act upon our theoretical environmental values, being made aware of this value-action gap may trigger cognitive dissonance.”

Even if we are able to fathom such seemingly distant threats, the next obstacle for the poor primordial brain is figuring out how best to respond. To illustrate the difficulties of individual climate action, I will use the example of Nutella. I can no longer, in good conscience, consume it by the kilo because the cultivation of palm oil, while giving Nutella its famous texture, also happens to be one of the leading causes of deforestation (WWF, n.d.). However, I shouldn’t be too quick to pat myself on the back for curbing my Nutella consumption. I guarantee that if you look inside my pantry, or even my shower, for that matter, you would still find palm oil on many of my products’ ingredient lists. As cognitive misers, we take the simplest course of action by default, and for most, that means that reading the back of every cereal box and shampoo bottle in the store is not a possibility. In this way, it can often be difficult to act upon our values because we simply do not have the cognitive resources to research the environmental impacts of all of our actions. 

The difficulty of not only recognizing but also responding to the issue may be fostering more problematic shifts in our beliefs about climate change. Given that it is often difficult to act upon our theoretical environmental values, being made aware of this value-action gap may trigger cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when one’s beliefs and behaviours are in conflict. In an attempt to minimize dissonance, we may be shifting our beliefs to match our behaviour rather than making an effort to make better decisions. Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, and Whitmarsh (2007) found several trends in perceived barriers to fighting climate change – helplessness, fatalism, and externalising responsibility. Adopting an attitude of helplessness ‘as an individual, there isn’t anything I can do’, and fatalism ‘it’s too late to do anything, we’re doomed regardless’, reduce cognitive dissonance by changing individual beliefs about climate change. Externalising responsibility ‘corporations and governments are responsible for this crisis, and they are the only ones with the power to fix it’, reduces cognitive dissonance by attributing the dissonance to factors outside of one’s own control. While these sentiments, especially the latter, may have truth to them, such widespread beliefs about climate change contribute to the problem even more by creating counterproductive social norms. 

“This complacency contributes to a phenomenon known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’”

When nobody feels responsible for climate change, and nobody feels that they can do anything about it, the result is a culture of complacency. This complacency contributes to a phenomenon known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which we all overconsume shared resources at our benefit, but at the expense of the collective good. This phenomenon applies not only at an individual level but at a corporate and governmental level, in which they delay taking action while continuing to deplete resources (Battersby, 2017). From individual beliefs of helplessness and fatalism, to the pervasive outsourcing of blame, we have created an environment in which nobody is held accountable for their behaviour.

With such beliefs, we not only lose the motivation to change our own behaviour, but also to hold others responsible. The more we become aware of the cognitive hurdles that prevent us from translating our values into action, the more we are able to foster a culture in which we all feel responsible for the welfare of our planet.<<

References

– American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2020, from https://dictionary.apa.org/cognitive-miser
– Battersby, S. (2017). News Feature: Can humankind escape the tragedy of the commons? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(1), 7–10.
– Global Carbon Atlas. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.globalcarbonatlas.org/en/CO2-emissions
– Johnson, D., Levin, S. (2009). The Tragedy of Cognition: Psychological Biases and Environmental Inaction. Current Science, 97, 1593-1603
– Leiserowitz, A. (2005). Communicating the risks of global warming: American risk perceptions, affective images, and interpretive communities. Creating a Climate for Change, 44–63.
– Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3-4), 445–459. 
– Sellier, A.-L., Scopelliti, I., & Morewedge, C. K. (2019). Debiasing Training Improves Decision Making in the Field. Psychological Science, 30(9), 1371–1379
– Worldometer. (2020). United States Population. Retrieved from https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/us-population/
– WWF. (n.d.). Deforestation causes. Retrieved from https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/forests/deforestation_causes2/

If you take a look around you, odds are that almost everything you see, save, maybe, your houseplant, is the result of human innovation. What was once someone’s idea now lies before you in material form, thanks to the few trillion electrochemical signals flying around between our ears that make us the creative, analytical, and social creatures that we are – or so we like to think. While it is easy to dote about the beauty of human cognition, there are still many ways in which our brains can fail us, and the two are by no means mutually exclusive. The adaptive cognitive features that helped us survive in and shape our environment may also be leading to its destruction. In this way, cognition can be a double-edged sword when it comes to fighting climate change.

From an evolutionary perspective, it would be an understatement to say that we have a strong preference for the planet to not die. Rationally, it would hold that a threat so urgent to the survival of our planet, and therefore our species, would be faced with much resistance. Yet, year after year, record-breaking carbon emissions tell a different story. How is it that our beliefs and our actions are so at odds with each other? Researchers argue that we simply aren’t wired to act against climate change (Johnson & Levin, 2009). 

“While most of us do not lack awareness about the issue, the consequences may still seem abstract or distant because we do not see or feel them directly.”

Humans are cognitive misers, which means that we prefer to expend the least amount of mental resources as possible (American Psychological Association, n.d.). The mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that we use to ease daily functioning may lead to cognitive biases which work against us when it comes to taking action against climate change. Heuristics are not inherently bad – without them, our cognitive load would be too high to effectively deal with the amount of information we receive. This is not to say that we cannot act against climate change because our ‘wiring’ will not allow us to – it does, however, mean that it will take more effort. In fact, specific awareness of the cognitive biases that prevent us from taking climate action can measurably reduce their effects on decision making (Sellier, Scopelliti, & Morewedge, 2019).

The first problem lies within the problem itself. Climate change is highly complex, making it difficult for us to conceptualize in a concrete manner. We are best suited to respond to sensory threats in our direct environment, which drives our reluctance to approach abstract problems such as climate change. While most of us do not lack awareness about the issue, the consequences may still seem abstract or distant because we do not see or feel them directly. A survey showed that “Americans perceive climate change as a moderate risk that will predominantly impact geographically and temporally distant people and places” (Leiserowitz, 2005).  Given that the United States ranks second in global carbon emissions (Global Carbon Atlas, 2019) while making up only 4.25% of the population (Worldometer, 2020), there is a clear tendency to underestimate the gravity of the problem, which may be driven by a lack of perceived threat. Our evolutionary predisposition to respond to direct sensory threats may be preventing us from effectively prioritizing climate change as a threat to our wellbeing.

“Given that it is often difficult to act upon our theoretical environmental values, being made aware of this value-action gap may trigger cognitive dissonance.”

Even if we are able to fathom such seemingly distant threats, the next obstacle for the poor primordial brain is figuring out how best to respond. To illustrate the difficulties of individual climate action, I will use the example of Nutella. I can no longer, in good conscience, consume it by the kilo because the cultivation of palm oil, while giving Nutella its famous texture, also happens to be one of the leading causes of deforestation (WWF, n.d.). However, I shouldn’t be too quick to pat myself on the back for curbing my Nutella consumption. I guarantee that if you look inside my pantry, or even my shower, for that matter, you would still find palm oil on many of my products’ ingredient lists. As cognitive misers, we take the simplest course of action by default, and for most, that means that reading the back of every cereal box and shampoo bottle in the store is not a possibility. In this way, it can often be difficult to act upon our values because we simply do not have the cognitive resources to research the environmental impacts of all of our actions. 

The difficulty of not only recognizing but also responding to the issue may be fostering more problematic shifts in our beliefs about climate change. Given that it is often difficult to act upon our theoretical environmental values, being made aware of this value-action gap may trigger cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when one’s beliefs and behaviours are in conflict. In an attempt to minimize dissonance, we may be shifting our beliefs to match our behaviour rather than making an effort to make better decisions. Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, and Whitmarsh (2007) found several trends in perceived barriers to fighting climate change – helplessness, fatalism, and externalising responsibility. Adopting an attitude of helplessness ‘as an individual, there isn’t anything I can do’, and fatalism ‘it’s too late to do anything, we’re doomed regardless’, reduce cognitive dissonance by changing individual beliefs about climate change. Externalising responsibility ‘corporations and governments are responsible for this crisis, and they are the only ones with the power to fix it’, reduces cognitive dissonance by attributing the dissonance to factors outside of one’s own control. While these sentiments, especially the latter, may have truth to them, such widespread beliefs about climate change contribute to the problem even more by creating counterproductive social norms. 

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“This complacency contributes to a phenomenon known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’”

When nobody feels responsible for climate change, and nobody feels that they can do anything about it, the result is a culture of complacency. This complacency contributes to a phenomenon known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which we all overconsume shared resources at our benefit, but at the expense of the collective good. This phenomenon applies not only at an individual level but at a corporate and governmental level, in which they delay taking action while continuing to deplete resources (Battersby, 2017). From individual beliefs of helplessness and fatalism, to the pervasive outsourcing of blame, we have created an environment in which nobody is held accountable for their behaviour.

With such beliefs, we not only lose the motivation to change our own behaviour, but also to hold others responsible. The more we become aware of the cognitive hurdles that prevent us from translating our values into action, the more we are able to foster a culture in which we all feel responsible for the welfare of our planet.<<

References

– American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved March 10, 2020, from https://dictionary.apa.org/cognitive-miser
– Battersby, S. (2017). News Feature: Can humankind escape the tragedy of the commons? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(1), 7–10.
– Global Carbon Atlas. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.globalcarbonatlas.org/en/CO2-emissions
– Johnson, D., Levin, S. (2009). The Tragedy of Cognition: Psychological Biases and Environmental Inaction. Current Science, 97, 1593-1603
– Leiserowitz, A. (2005). Communicating the risks of global warming: American risk perceptions, affective images, and interpretive communities. Creating a Climate for Change, 44–63.
– Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3-4), 445–459. 
– Sellier, A.-L., Scopelliti, I., & Morewedge, C. K. (2019). Debiasing Training Improves Decision Making in the Field. Psychological Science, 30(9), 1371–1379
– Worldometer. (2020). United States Population. Retrieved from https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/us-population/
– WWF. (n.d.). Deforestation causes. Retrieved from https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/forests/deforestation_causes2/
Ofelya Aliyeva

Author Ofelya Aliyeva

Ofelya Aliyeva (2001) is a firstyear psychology student. She particularly enjoys writing about social and cultural psychology, having grown up around several differing, and sometimes opposing cultures.

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