Why People Don’t Act (1)

Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance

Study reveals that climate change could dramatically alter fragile mountain habitats

Melting polar ice, rising sea levels not only climate change dangers

What are we to make of these findings?  Is climate change real? Important? Impactful?

Turns out that the science of climate change is compelling, yet the acceptance of this information is not compelling. People vary widely as to their acceptance of scientific information and their willingness to take actions. Why don’t people care and why don’t people act? Why has the issue of climate change become politicized?

I define an individual, an organization, or government as producing positive environmental outcomes when they minimize their negative environmental outcomes and communicate about their impacts to others. Yet, we are still left with finding out why people don’t act. I’ll use climate change as my focus yet what I am about to discuss applies to most environmental areas.

In my first blog on this topic (“Why People Don’t Act and How to Get Them to Care and Act”), I presented an outline of reasons for these outcomes.  I’ll address one broad category of reasons here – decision making, beliefs, and emotions.

We tend to make decisions using two major systems: (1) System 1 thinking is rapid, automatic, emotional, and intuitive.  We have a bias toward this way of thinking and (2) slow thinking rooted in calculating and deliberative methods.  Environmental outcomes demand System 2 thinking which is not dominant in peoples’ ways of thinking. For example, terms such as radiative forcing, greenhouse gases, and heat island effects are not easily understood and sometimes confusing when used in the vernacular. The connections among earth systems is hard to define scientifically. Many scientists believe that adverse weather events are related to climate change; yet, the exact connection and causes are not well known. Climate change impacts on precipitation is probably the least well known.

These terms and the idea of the Anthrocpocene, a new term for this epoch, are not easy to understand.  The Anthropocene defines Earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that earth systems are now altered by humans.  This way of thinking requires a big change in the way we think about our connection to the world. The future of the planet, if, for the first time, at least partially, if not substantially, under the control of conscious, reasoning beings.  We do not realize this fact, in general.  Part of the reason is that climate change lacks salience- it is abstract, distant, invisible, and disputed.  We experience hubris, the state of being above the challenge and believing it could never happen to us. We are extremely proud and self-confident and as a result, we ignore data that challenges this state of being.

We experience lots of information uncertainty and climate science is not always clear. So we use System 1 thinking to jump to often erroneous conclusions.

We further view climate change through our cognitive biases.  Cognitive bias is a systematic error people make in thinking that affects their decisions and judgments. Sometimes these biases are related to memory. The way you remember an event may be biased for a number of reasons which can lead to biased thinking and decision-making. In another instance, cognitive biases might be related to problems with attention. Since attention is a limited resource, people have to be selective about what they pay attention to in the world around them. Many people tend to believe that climate change will harm plants and animal species, yet few of these same people think climate change will harm them.

This is a clear cognitive bias. We believe we face lower risk than others (optimism bias). We often confuse facts and opinions because we tend to seek confirming information for existing ways we think (confirmation bias). Science and policy making are fundamentally different ways of thinking and they each use a unique set of methodologies. Thus, we have difficulty getting our heads around bridging the two. For example, science never confirms definitively the conclusion; science rejects the null hypothesis meaning that certain ideas are probable. It adheres to certain methods and objectivity; the public tends to have a lack of understanding on the peer review process in scientific discovery public policy is a political resolution. Science is never done. We are constantly discovering new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of acting. This uncertainly does not play well with many people because they want certainty to drive policy development. Policy people may take this provisional nature of science as climate change not being real.

We have different world views that color our perceptions (cultural cognition).  Climate change and the narrative constructed around it fit into a set of preexisting ideological views about the distribution of power, role of government, individual rights, etc.

This cultural cognition leads people to frame the challenge of climate change and the related science in various ways. Here are just a few of the more common framings:

Frame[1]Defines science-related issue as:
Social ProgressA means of improving the quality of life or solving problems; be in harmony with nature.
Economic development and competitivenessAn economic investment; market benefit or risk; point of competitiveness at various scales.
Morality and ethicsA matter of right or wrong or respect for limits, thresholds, or boundaries.
Scientific and technical uncertaintyA matter of expert understanding of what is and is not known.
Pandora’s box/runaway scienceA need for precaution or action in the face of certain outcomes
Public accountability and governanceResearch or policy either in public interest or serving special interests emphasizing such areas as transparency, responsiveness, or ownership; debate between science and public policy
Conflict and strategyA game among elites such as who is winning and or losing the debate.

So when we talk together we may be framing the core issues differently.  This difference means we often talk past each other.

We have shared aspects of various identities, such as (a) be optimistic; (b) maintain control; (c) be proud of your country, city, company; (d) do not infringe on other’s rights to be an individual and for them to pursue self-interests; (e) being me solutions no problems.  Thus, we engage in behavior and develop mental thoughts to support our identities:

  • We use selective attention, especially related to our identifies, and control our own exposure to information;
  • We do not think too far ahead; we focus on what we can control; We have trouble distinguishing between the environment and my environment.  We also focus on our immediate needs first and long-term needs later, such as the negative impacts of environmental outcomes. Uncertainty about future outcomes leads us to act in our own short-term self-interest.
  • We are a small part of the problem when addressing environmental problems, especially climate change. It is overwhelming and a potential threat to one’s identify. “I am a good, responsible person yet I can’t do anything.  This lack of ability to act makes me feel bad so I don’t think about the problems;”
  • We do not confront others when they engage in environmentally destructive behavior. We engage in distortions and deceptions to maintain valued self-conceptions and social harmony. Negative environmental outcomes prevent people from getting what they want, they are not enjoyable and generally not socially appropriate to discuss with others, in organizations or within the government;
  • We engage in interpretative denial. We use stories to frame issues. For example, we turn disturbing environmental news into a positive light. “It is not that bad.”  We are not as bad as  __________ (fill it in – China, India, Africa, etc). We self-regulate emotions because of a preference for emotions that enable us to get what we want out life (instrumental) and because some emotional states are more enjoyable than others (hedonic). Some emotions are socially appropriate, but others are not (normative). Concern does not equal support: rational scientific data can lose against a compelling emotional story that speaks to our core values.

Our brain does not respond to environmental value the same way it does to other classes of economic behavior.  Instead, we tend to have a negative affective response to the words climate change, global warming. As a result, climate change is psychologically distant from individual experiences.

No wonder people don’t act! But, do not despair. In future blogs I will tell you what we can do about these pressures not to care and not to act.  Before telling you what we can do, I will write another blog about other reasons people do not act. Once we understand why they don’t act we can design actions to push them toward action.

[1] Adapted from D. Jamieson: 98


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