Psychology of Climate Change

26 09 2010

Recently Prof David Uzzell, Professor of Environmental Psychology at University of Surrey, spoke at the Royal Society on the role of psychology in addressing climate change. Leo Hickman quotes him at length in the Guardian Environment Blog.

As a great bastion of evidence-based and peer-reviewed scientific endeavour, I could imagine the Royal Society might wonder why the overwhelming evidence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not enough to rationally convince Government, business and the public in general of the need for urgent and socially transformative change. The problem is that rational argument doesn’t work on an issue which is more ideological than logical. A deeper psychological understanding of what compels ‘belief’ and ‘denial’, and a more sophisticated examination of ‘denial’ (e.g. literal denial of evidence? or acceptance of evidence but denial of implications – splitting), enables more effective forms of influencing behavioural change. But as Uzzell points out, the discipline of psychology alone is not enough. What’s required is a trans-disciplinary approach that benefits from insights from science – conventional and post-conventional, from sociology and anthropology, and from new economics. I would add that a social psychological understanding, that acknowledges the fundamentally social source of our psychological patterns and drives, is necessary for developing responses to the complexity of Climate Change. This means engaging at the level of the individual in relationship rather than attempting to influence individuals as discrete, Leibnizian windowless monads.

Hickman’s blog also references a paper by Pitman and Newell that explores the psychology of judgement and how we make decisions, and the common traps that we fall into. It supports the case that the adversarial discourse of ‘belief’ and ‘denial’ is ridiculously simplistic and a much more sophisticated investigation of drivers towards action and away (disengagement and denial of implications) is necessary and urgent. The implications for organisational change is obvious – as with climate change a more integrated, trans-disciplinary and participative approach is required.




2 responses

27 09 2010

Hi, great article, I recommend to all

15 10 2010
Sandy Rodger

I think there’s an interesting business connection in this subject. I’ve recently moved from working in consumer goods businesses, where it’s vital that you work from a detailed understanding of consumer needs and habits, and approach with great subtlety the question of how those habits can be changed to adopt new products. Some of that is based on psychological principles as the article suggests. I’ve moved to a year of studying environmental engineering, and working with various utilities, and found a much lower level of consumer understanding, and a deep scepticism that anyone can change consumer behaviour. The origins of this are in many years of public ownership and in providing commoditised utility services, but there’s now a clear opportunity for change. The challenge is to get a transfer of deep consumer knowhow and capability into the environmental and utilities sectors. Maybe Ashridge can help with this?

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