In an article by the American Psychologist, author Robert Gifford discusses ‘The Dragons of Inaction’ which represent the seven psychological barriers to engagement with the climate movement. A staggering amount of individuals who have the choice to make sustainably driven decisions still partake in unethically and environmentally harming lifestyles, despite being aware and afraid of the climate crisis. Psychological barriers do not decrease the likelihood of making sustainably-driven decisions; they have the potential to limit the range of choices an individual experiences entirely. The ‘Dragons of Inaction’ encompass three phases: a lack of understanding removes or dramatically diminishes one’s ability to consider the consequences of their actions. Those who are aware of their impact still face a series of predisposed psychological processes that further hinders this ability. Even the small minority of individuals that partake in ethical decisions regularly experience a range of psychological effects that often result in an unimpacted or more significant amount of unethical consumption. It is counterproductive to dismiss predetermined human psychologically when evaluating the availability of choices even to individuals in a position of privilege as it creates a sense of false optimism in the global collective’s ability to reform themselves sustainably.
Recent global movements that highlight the certainty of the devastating effects of climate change can have a counterproductive effect on individual motivation despite being hugely productive in motivating mass displays of public action. Fear and guilt possess the ability to manipulate an individuals decision-making process and the potential to suppress emotion and cause a denial. An example of this is the continuous increase in the rates of lifestyle diseases in modern-day society despite their causes having been made aware of for decades. The paradoxical ability to understand the consequences of an action and still partake in it apply to the climate crisis as it provides an insight into why individuals repeatedly ignore their capacity to make ethical choices. Again, this demonstrates an overlooked barrier experienced by the privileged, which impacts an individual’s range of choices similar to how a financial or physical barrier would act.
The human brain has remained relatively the same as it was thousands of years ago, with its natural intuition still essentially built for making decisions about immediate, short term threats which in turn provided a reward. This “ancient brain” is unequipped to deal with the climate crisis as humans have evolved to associate risk with emotion, reacting to what is close to them in both space and time. Without the physical factor of immediate threat, it is essential to go against intuition which is extremely difficult psychologically. Further, there is a strong drive to partake in actions that reap external rewards, which commonly occurs as opportunities that provide validation, material gain and wealth in modern-day society. In combination, these factors cause the brain to perceive the looming threat of climate change in a psychologically abstract manner, with no real connection to emotion which means there is no intuitive panic that causes continuous questioning of actions and their consequences. There is a disconnect between the individual, threat and reward, and thus it is much more challenging to promote consideration of how one’s actions impact the growing threat of climate change.
Humans are social and naturally competitive beings who tend to make decisions that will showcase their success in line with social pressures. Psychological studies into the aspect of social comparison have led to the development of theories such as the theory of planned behaviour and the belief-value-norm model, which display how society impacts the individual’s behaviour. With the invention of the television, internet and social media, the feeling of direct comparison to celebrities and other figures deemed successful normalises unethical consumerism and the increasing need for material gain. Similarly, where there is a lack of climate action within a community, individuals experience a sense of inequity when they are expected to make sustainably driven choices which decreases the likelihood of consideration. The normalisation of unethical ideologies and lifestyle choices which surround an individual can limit the choices available psychologically.
However, the link between social norms and behaviour can be used to create patterns of positive decision making within a community. In a recent behavioural experiment conducted by the UCLA Engage Program, the energy use of residence in a student village was monitored and publically displayed using a bad, good or excellent rating. Results showed dramatic decreases in energy usage, and interviews with those participating gave insight into increased levels of motivation to take advantage of the choices available to them through the aspect of competition and normalisation. The dramatic reduction in sales of commercial products containing Chlorofluorocarbons in response to the increased awareness of the ‘Ozone Hole’ during the 1980s is another example of how the psychology of normalisation can lead to a shift in decision making on an individual, consumer level. The clear link between human psychology and individuals must be assessed to improve climate consideration and evaluate decision-making processes in privileged society.