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7 Ways Psychology Can Help Fight Climate Change (and How You Can Help)

Climate scientists have long agreed that the climate is warming and becoming more volatile, and human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels, are the main drivers behind these planetary changes. (NASA has a lot more details on this consensus.) Yet human behavior has been slow to change.

Psychologists study and attempt to understand what motivates people and how we think, feel, and act as groups and individuals. This knowledge can be put to use to change the behaviors that are ultimately problematic for our planet.

Yet, according to a report published in February 2022 by the American Psychological Association (APA), only a small number of psychologists include addressing climate change in their work. 

The organization hopes to change that with its action plan for psychologists to address the climate crisis, the report notes.

panel held in August at the APA 2022, the organization’s annual meeting, brought together researchers, experts, and thought leaders to discuss how psychology can change human behavior around climate change. 

“Distress is a normal part of moving to action,” said Christie Manning, PhD, an assistant professor of environmental studies and psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the discussion. “Individuals have the power to take these steps. We need to encourage them and help them.”

Dr. Manning said that to fight climate change, it will take systemic change, infrastructure change, and policy change. These things can happen if people join the activist community, hold politicians accountable when they promise movement on climate change, and contact elected officials to ask for new policies.

Here are seven ways Manning and the other panelists said psychology can be part of the solution, as well as what you can do.

1. Identify and Thwart Cognitive Biases That Stall Climate Action

Cognitive biases are ways of thinking and reasoning that don’t necessarily conform to logic, according to the Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience. They happen when our brains try to process information to make sense of something, and they influence our judgment, decision-making, and behavior. For example, you search for information that confirms what you already believe about something and accept that over other research or expert opinion on the topic.

According to Gale M. Sinatra, PhD, the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education and an associate dean of research at the Rossier School of Education at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, this can apply to climate science, too. “We have some cognitive biases in how we reason,” she said during the panel.

Cognitive bias theory, for example, explains why people have trouble connecting human behaviors to the impact it has on the environment, research, such as a study in the May 2018 Frontiers in Psychology, has found

 

If you feel like new climate policies will cause changes to your way of living, you might have a strong emotional reaction opposing the policies. The emotional reaction can cause you to ignore the facts and data presented. 

Psychology can help us unpack thinking patterns and challenge these biases. 

How to be part of the solution We all have cognitive biases, whether we realize them or not. Take a step back to stop and check if and when yours are showing up. Use critical thinking to challenge reactions that might be emotionally based, Sinatra recommended during an interview after the meeting. This especially applies when sharing information online.

2. Help People Align Their Environmental Values With Their Actions

Values clarification is a technique often used in therapy to help a person get a better understanding of their own values. Once someone is clear about their values, they can then examine how their choices and behavior match them (and when a person’s actions and behaviors align with what’s important to them, that ultimately leads to emotional well-being).

Derrick Sebree Jr., PsyD, the MA program director and a core faculty member at Michigan School of Psychology in Farmington Hills, says he believes values clarification exercises can be used in connection with climate change. If people value protecting nature and the environment, values clarification exercises can help them make sure their actions and behaviors are contributing to that, he says.

How to be part of the solution Think about your personal values. How do they relate to the way you feel about the environment and what’s happening with climate change? Once you get clear on what’s important to you, you can look for ways to help, Dr. Sebree says.

“Taking action actually reduces your anxiety regarding climate change,” Sinatra says. “It can be both helpful to the cause and helpful to yourself.”

3. Make It Easier to Make Climate-Friendly Choices

“The way you present different choices can affect people’s likelihood of choosing a particular option,” says Susan Clayton, PhD, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Psychologists refer to the concept as “choice architecture.” 

meta-analysis published in December 2021 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) concluded that choice architecture is an effective tool for behavior changes, both personally and socially.

This can be applied when the goal is to get people to choose a more eco-friendly option.

One example is menu design. It’s well known that meals with meat on average come with a higher carbon footprint than plant-based diet options, Dr. Clayton says. “If you put the vegetarian option higher on the list, people are more likely to choose it,” she explains. 

How to be part of the solution You can also try using choice architecture to encourage friends or family to select environmentally friendly options, such as buying produce from a local farmer’s market instead of the grocery store. If your work requires travel, ask your manager about presenting green hotel options first when employees are booking accommodations.

4. Instill a Sense of Urgency

At the APA panel, Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy and a professor of political science at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, discussed the role of psychological distance and psychological proximity in prompting behavior change. 

If something has psychological distance (meaning people feel mentally removed from what’s happening) it might seem worrisome, but not urgent, she said. Psychological proximity, on the other hand, means an issue feels urgent in the here and now, she explained.

Data suggest that many Americans feel psychological distance from climate change; while 70 percent of Americans are worried about climate change and 80 percent of young people are worried, half feel hopeless and don’t know where to start, and only 8 percent are activated (meaning they are taking a meaningful action to address the issue), according to data collected by the Yale School of the Environment and a 2020 poll by the United States Conference of Mayors

“We don’t understand the risks of inaction to us and the rewards of action to us,” she said. So, there’s room for psychological proximity to boost the sense of urgency around the problem, and ultimately increase the likelihood of making behavior changes that are good for the planet, she explained.

How to be part of the solution Do you live in a place where you’ve observed environmental changes? Have you traveled somewhere where you can see the impacts of climate change? Talk with people around you and share it on social media. Hearing about the firsthand experiences of people we know can help make an issue feel closer to us. Also, take those steps yourself to educate yourself.

5. Better Tailor the Messaging

Psychologists know that people are more receptive to some kinds of messages than others, so tailoring climate change messaging to different audiences has the potential to move behavior.

“It does matter who your audience is,” Clayton says. If people don’t see climate change as a problem, the message needs to try to address that; if an audience already sees climate change as a problem, a sense of hope is helpful because if people feel like actions can make a difference, they’re more likely to do something, he explains.

Sebree says he uses personal stories to help people connect with the seriousness of climate change. “I talk about what my family has experienced in terms of going through some of the impacts of climate change, such as flooding in Michigan. The anecdote allows people to extend that to themselves.”

How to be part of the solution If you’re talking to someone in your life about climate change, Clayton recommends speaking to the values and concerns of the person you’re talking to. For example, if the person you’re talking to goes fishing as a hobby, you might talk about how the climate crisis will impact their favorite fishing locations. If they have a child who is an important part of their life, you might connect climate change to what the child could experience in the future.

6. Shift Social Norms to Motivate Good Behavior

People’s behavior can be influenced by what they think others around them, or others in a larger group, are doing or not doing (or whether others approve or disapprove), research shows. This applies to behavior that affects climate change and climate action, too, Clayton says.

Psychologists can help by advising advocacy groups and policy leaders on how to get the message out that people are taking part in climate action. The more people see others helping with these efforts, the more likely they are to join.

How to be part of the solution You can help in your community by being a good example and telling others about steps you are taking, Clayton says. If you signed a petition for climate change legislation or called your local congressperson to ask them to vote yes or no on a bill for climate action, talk about having done so with friends and family. 

7. Help People Feel Connected With Nature 

Nature-based therapy, or eco-therapy, is a technique that some psychologists use to help boost mental health, according to the APA. They might recommend someone spend more time outdoors to do things like hiking or forest bathing, Sebree says.

Aside from helping to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, being in nature can also cause people to feel more connected with their environment — something Sebree said builds personal relevance to the climate crisis. (It helps boost that psychological proximity Dr. Hayhoe was talking about.)

“The more someone feels connected to the environment, the more likely they are to make choices to protect the environment,” Sebree says.

How to be part of the solution Try it yourself. Eco-therapy, or simply spending time in nature, can serve as a reminder that humans are also part of nature, and we need to protect our habitat. If you’re already an avid nature adventurer, try to encourage someone in your life to come with you. 

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