Of Cake and Climate: lessons from psychology to help us face the climate crisis.

Dr Clare Andrews, Lecturer in Psychology, Faculty of Natural Sciences

The climate emergency is a global challenge. It’s easy to feel that individuals alone cannot make a meaningful difference. So, how can we talk about climate change in a way that is motivational, and support a genuine change in behaviour? Dr Clare Anders offers some insights from psychology.

Hello and welcome to my talk about psychology and the climate crisis. My name is Dr Clare Andrews and I’m a lecturer in the psychology department. In this short talk, I want to share with you how a psychology experiment with sweet treats can lead to insights that help us face the climate crisis and find more effective ways to communicate about it during COP 26. 

The climate scientists are overwhelmingly agreed, as the recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make abundantly clear:  Climate change is really happening; it’s driven by humans; heating of the planet is happening faster than ever before; and its bad news for humanity. 

The breakdown of Earth’s climate systems will bring extreme storms, floods and fires and difficulties for agriculture, which are expected to lead to mass displacement of people, food shortages, and the conflict that likely results from this. 

Yet, still there are more than a few people who are not hugely concerned and even more who are failing to act on this information, including, I would argue many global leaders. Why on Earth not? 

There are, of course, multiple political and economic influences at play here. But can psychology help us to explain why, in the face of such a threat, many humans seem to be behaving a bit like ostriches with their heads seemingly buried in the sand? 

It’s become apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic that psychology can play a role in helping us to understand why some people are more concerned or more willing to take action than others to slow the spread of the virus, which ways of communicating messages can be most effective to change this, and also how the crisis has impacted on our mental health. 

Similarly, psychology can help us understand these processes in the context of the climate crisis as well, and ultimately by applying psychology, we can help to change behaviour. 

But why is prioritising the planet is seemingly so hard? Well, in a classic psychology experiment known as the marshmallow test, children are given a sweet treat put in front of them. And they’re told that if they can resist eating it for a few minutes, they’ll instead get a bigger helping later. Imagine yourself in this scenario – if you can resist a single slice of cake now, in 15 minutes, I’ll give you the whole rest of the cake. 

But can they resist? Well, it varies between individual children, but often the answer is, er, no! And the longer they have to wait, the harder it is to resist what’s on the plate in front of them. The future reward – the big bit of cake here – seems too far away and too abstract to act as a strong enough influence against impulsivity, taking what’s there right now.  

Children get better able to delay gratification in this way as they grow up. But even as adults, we’re overall rather bad at forgoing something we like now to get something better later. 

Psychologists put this down to what we call ‘psychological distance’. The reward in the future is perceived as being far away. This means that we devalue it compared to what’s in front of us now. And this plays a role in the behaviour of adults, too. It contributes to the challenge of changing behaviours that impact their health – for instance, refraining from smoking or unhealthy eating in the here and now, so as to gain ourselves health benefits in future.   

In the context of climate change, it’s similarly a psychological challenge to forgo that reward now – maybe flying off for a sunshine break or getting that shopping buzz – even if resisting will bring a reward in the future, even so large as safety for ourselves or our children. 

Sometimes the more environmental choice involves us investing more time or money now to get those future gains as well – another thing that human psychology is generally not so good at doing. We see this effect play a role, for example, in reluctance in saving for our pensions. But it also affects our environmental behaviours. For example, cycling to work might take more time and effort than driving there, though it brings health and climate rewards in the future. 

A related problem is that we have often perceived the effects of climate breakdown not only to be far ahead in time, but also far away geographically in space – on distant continents, for instance. 

Often, we perceive the impacts as affecting people who are far away, too, and who we perceive as not being part of a psychological group like our family and our friends are. Sometimes people incorrectly perceive climate change to be something affecting only other species, not us humans. 

But psychological distance can be reduced. Research has found that people who are exposed to devastating extreme weather events such as floods, storms or fires, or live near areas that have been affected, generally show stronger concern over climate change. 

Other studies have carried out experiments in which people are asked to imagine themselves in a climate-changed future. Even this imagining is enough to apparently shorten that perceived psychological distance and sway their concerns or intentions to act themselves. 

Although what we don’t yet know is whether that’s having a long-lasting effect on their attitudes or behaviour. 

Other psychology research has investigated whether installing too much fear in people, even though the climate science warrants it, might be counterproductive to seeing action. Feelings of terror, hopelessness or despair might actually reduce people’s motivation.   

Instead, what if communications about climate change remind people that there is still hope? After all, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear that it’s not yet too late to limit the damage if large-scale action is taken now. 

So, is instilling hope more motivational than doom and gloom? Research showing people either hope- or fear-oriented messaging often indicates that instilling hope by showing a clear path forward and the positive benefits this could bring, leaves people with more intention to change their behaviour or take part in activism. However, some studies comparing appeals to hope versus appeals to fear come to the opposite conclusion. So, the picture may be more complicated by other factors, such as people’s prior attitudes or political ideologies. 

Similarly, communicating clear actions that people themselves can contribute, and that would be effective, can motivate people to behave in ways that benefit the climate. Although again on this point, there are somewhat mixed results from research, and the picture may be complicated by people’s prior values and emotions for instance. 

And this matters from the perspective of Psychology too, because as well as the millions of lives at stake, research in psychology gives added cause for alarm that the threat to mental health is also very serious. There are both direct effects of trauma from disasters and displacement caused by extreme weather, for instance, as well as the psychological dread that is growing – termed in the media “eco-anxiety”. This is a response that many Climate Psychologists argue is often an entirely appropriate response to the reality of what’s going on. 

In a high-profile psychology study just published, more than half of 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds surveyed, in countries from the U.K. to India, Brazil to the United States and Nigeria to Australia, said that they feared for their own family’s security and that anxiety was affecting their ability to sleep, study, eat or play. Four in 10 of those young people said climate threats made them hesitant to have children of their own one day.  And over half admitted they believed humanity was, quote, “doomed”. Children reported they felt let down by governments. And of the 81 percent who tried to talk to others about climate change, nearly half of them reported being ignored or dismissed; risking what psychologists refer to as disenfranchised emotions. 

To sum up then, psychology gives us some lessons we can take away with us when we’re having conversations with friends, family or colleagues during COP26 and beyond:  

To encourage climate action by reducing perceived psychological distance, we should aim to talk about effects of climate change in the here and now, close to home. 

To encourage action, we can also try to remind people that it’s not too late, and that change is possible, and about the benefits of doing so. 

And talking about it can even reduce some negative emotional impact that facing up to this crisis, as indeed we must, can have on us mentally. 

Talking about the climate crisis in ways that overcome psychological barriers to action is one of the tools at our disposal to help tackle the crisis itself and its effects on people’s mental health. Perhaps during COP26, you’ll think back to psychology when you find yourself sitting down with a cuppa and cake and daring to chat with those you know about the climate.  

So, thanks so much for listening while I talked about this critical issue. 

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