An introduction to psychology and climate inaction

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.

Climate inaction: you’re not lazy, it’s your psychology

Something that I don’t see talked about a lot in regards to climate change is how difficult it is to overcome the psychological influences that often prevent us from making the right decision on an individual level. It’s really great to share information on what sort of choices people can make in their own lives that will reduce their emissions, but I think how difficult breaking habits and pulling away from social norms can be is pretty overlooked on social media, especially in the case of climate change where there really is no immediate reward for making the right decision. I find it really difficult to motivate myself to make the right decisions to lower my personal emissions despite being pretty passionate about climate action, and I know there are lots of people who are in the same boat so I’ve compiled a quick list of advice that I think takes into consideration the fact that its fucking hard to make decisions that inconvenience you even if it’s the right thing to do.

1. Move away from fear tactics – I think fear tactics are great in producing significant social movements like the climate change marches, but on a personal scale they can do the opposite. Many of us react to fear and guilt by suppressing what is causing us to feel like that. Don’t try to scare yourself into making changes in your life because these kinds of decisions often are short-lived and tough to build a habit out of.

2. Focus on the good decisions you enjoy making – things like second-hand shopping, upcycling, etc. are easy to funnel effort into if you already like doing it. Maybe you really like using candles to light your room or something crazy. Similarly, focusing on foods you really enjoy that are better for the environment is a more natural way to convert to a more sustainable diet rather than trying to motivate yourself to eat shit you don’t even like. It’s worth researching sustainable alternatives to what you enjoy or pinpointing things that are already sustainable in your diet and focusing on those

3. Just get rid of the stuff you already dislike – this is pretty much the same as the last one; if there’s stuff in your life that you hate – e.g. lifestyle, diet, material things – that are bad for the environment, faze it out. This seems to be really good for converting to more sustainable (mostly veg/vegan) foods especially.

4. Use the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ mentality to your advantage – Humans are wired to be super competitive. Social pressure and norms are one of the biggest influences on how we make decisions in our personal lives. The more we see huge amounts of wealth and material gain from people like celebrities and those who are generally deemed successful, the more this becomes normalised and a kind of goal. But!!! You can use this to your advantage. Competition makes it so much easier to reach a goal because there’s a sense of personal validation. There are companies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkZ7BJQupVA) that have used a coding system to publically display how eco-friendly each apartment within a building has been each month, and the results are amazing. You can incorporate this into your own life by setting up friendly competitions with your friends or family, and it’s a really simple way to overcome some of the psychological barriers to making good choices. EDIT: Also, if you already use social media regularly, actively searching out and following influencers/youtube channels who live sustainably (and you enjoy!) is a good way to normalise it.

5. Remember that change can be enjoyable! I find it kind of upsetting that something that is so overlooked in the climate action movement is the potential for innovation and invention. A whole new market has opened up in almost every industry, and it’s really exciting. Get on top of interesting new technologies and innovations, and try to see the need for change in a way that is fresh and exciting!

6. I don’t know if this really counts as a tip but educating yourself on not only what sort of decisions you should be making but also the barriers to making these choices is really helpful in understanding what will work for you – the ‘Seven Dragons of Inaction’is a really good place to start, it’s essentially a list of the main barriers to climate orientated choice making. Check out: https://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/2010/december/climate

I want to reiterate that I am an exceptionally lazy and unmotivated person, and this is not coming from a place of experience but more just a general guide that I wanted to make for myself and I thought it could be potentially useful for other people too. Making decisions that disadvantage you personally is something that can be super difficult and I think it’s definitely something that needs to be discussed more since scare tactics and making people feel guilty clearly doesn’t do a considerable amount. Climate action needs to be reformed in the public eye to become something exciting and desirable rather than a chore. Cheers if you got to the end feel free to share