Research has identified a number of psychological barriers that can prevent people from believing in or acting on messages about climate change. Luckily, it has also suggested strategies for overcoming these barriers. (Originally published on Climate Code Red)
1. Climate change activists are pretty decent social psychologists. Social psychologists are terrible activists.
Most climate change activists I know are at least to some degree also social psychologists. They constantly consider questions like ‘how can we change the way people think’, ‘how can we make people care more’, and ‘what is the sound bite that is going to be most effective for this campaign?’. Generally, they hold reasonable theories about human psychology and societies. And for the most part, they’re willing to revise these theories as experience dictates. Every email to supporters, every rally poster, and every social media post functions like a mini-experiment, the results of which are carefully analysed. Maybe, for example, more people showed up to the rally that had the funny poster. But maybe that was due to the nicer weather. More data is needed. And so on. This isn’t science, obviously. But it’s also not far away. Moreover, as we’ll see below, most climate change activists are already intuitively applying much of the advice the research has to offer for them. In my experience, then, as amateur social psychologists go, climate activists are actually pretty passable.
Social psychologists, however (and I include myself in this category), are terrible activists. The majority of them, admittedly, are driven by sincere desires to change the world for the better. They want to uncover important knowledge, and they want this knowledge to be applied in the world in salubrious ways. Yet typically, their lives consist of nothing but slaving away in laboratories, designing studies, poring over data, and investigating super specific questions. If they’re lucky, these answers will get published somewhere, presented to other academics at a conference, and they’ll keep their jobs a little longer. And normally, this is where the story ends. Rarely, if ever, do they take time out from academia to communicate their findings with the public. The result is knowledge that never makes it out of the ivory tower, and all of their good intentions amounting to little practical impact on the world.
One story I heard recently gave me a stark reminder of this. A journalist friend of mine met a young PhD candidate at a climate change adaptation conference. When he asked her about the importance of her work, she swiftly responded that there were a number of groups who could utilise and benefit from it. But when he asked if she had been in touch with any of these groups, she could only mumble something, about the work being available in journals.
I had two responses to this story. The first was no, lady. People are not going to just go out and find your work. People are busy. Moreover, people have never even heard of your ‘journals’. And even if people did somehow find your work, unless they were connected to an academic institution (which most people are not), they are not going to pay the $30-40 most journals charge for a measly PDF download. Seriously. It’s not going to happen.
My second response, however, was a painful realization that I am just as guilty. Last year, I spent a huge amount of time scouring databases for research related to climate change communication for my psychological honours thesis. As a result, I now have a fairly good grasp of the scientific literature in the area. I also happen to know many climate change campaigners who would love this knowledge shared with them. One of them, in fact, co-directs of one of Australia’s biggest climate campaigning groups, and even asked me specifically if I could produce readable research overview of the area.
Yet despite this, I have still managed to continually find excuses not to do it. And quite easily, too, I might add. I was busy. There were other people more qualified to write it. None of it would markedly change practice anyway. Generally, I want to move on to doing more research, rather than spend time regurgitating what I already know. And focusing on new research is a much better way of advancing one’s own academic career than reaching out to the public. All of these, I believe, are key reasons why academics often fail to take time to communicate their knowledge and research findings with the world outside academia.
Another reason is simply that no one pays them to do it. For the most part, academics are paid for their work. But engaging with the public will in most cases be pro bono, which makes it less attractive. Moreover, many academics already feel that they’re earning less than someone of their abilities would earn in the private sector, so in a sense already feel like what they are doing is partly voluntary. This renders it even less likely that they will take on additional tasks outside of their own research and teaching.
But to social psychologists, I say: get out there. If we really are motivated by the desire to have a positive practical impact on the world, then we can and should be doing far more to make sure our work find their way into the hands that will make use of them. And to climate change activists, I say keep reading. I have put together the following research overview for you, and as a sometime climate change activist myself, I feel confident in saying that I think there will be plenty there that will interest you.
2. There has not been much experimental work done on the social psychology of climate change.
One of the first things I realized when I started looking for experimental psychological research into climate change is that there is actually surprisingly little of it. To be sure, there is a lot of research related to climate change, but the majority of it has to been correlational, rather than experimental. And this is an important difference. Read the rest of this entry »