There’s no getting around the fact that climate change is an existential crisis of the highest order — but how best to communicate that threat is unclear. Too much pessimism and people become paralysed with anxiety, pushing thoughts about the crisis away altogether. Too much optimism, on the other hand, can lead to complacency — if things are going to be okay, why would we feel the need to engage with what’s going on?
It’s this tension that Brandi S. Morris and colleagues from Aarhus University explore in a new study, published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. They suggest that climate change appeals with pessimistic endings could trigger higher engagement with the issue than those that end on an optimistic note.
We all know that it’s vital that we take action to reduce the harm we do to the environment. So understanding the barriers to such action is critical, too. A new paper, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, identifies a potentially important one: when people believe that it’s important to protect the environment, they’re less likely to act on those beliefs if they’re more religious.
Though COVID-19 is front and centre right now, most people would agree that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. As we explored earlier this year, how to engage people to combat that change is a thornier subject. Now a major new meta-analysis, published in Psychological Science, has revealed that particular personality traits are associated with more — or fewer — pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.
The work has potentially important practical implications. Reframing pro-environmental campaigns to resonate with people who would otherwise be more resistant to them could effect real change. As the researchers write, “personality factors may play a significant and systematic role in such reframing.”
One of the biggest political challenges of this era is getting powerful people to take the threat of climate change seriously. The most straightforward way to do that would be with bottom-up pressure: if the people who vote demand that their leaders take assertive action against climate change, then politicians will have no choice but to do so (at least if they want to get into office, or to stay there). The major challenge to this, in turn, has been the lingering influence of climate denialism: disbelief in the reality that humans are the cause of climate change, or in the seriousness of the problem.
What can be done to combat climate denialism? Back in 2011, the researchers Jonathon P. Schuldt, Sara H. Konrath, and Norbert Schwarz published an article in Public Opinion Quarterly which suggested one possible partial remedy: framing the issue a bit differently. They found that 75.0% of Americans expressed belief in “climate change,” but only 67.7% in “global warming.” It was Republicans driving this effect: among this more politically conservative subset of Americans, the difference was 60.2% versus 44.0%.
Those findings suggested that environmental campaigns and policy initiatives might do better if they refer to “climate change” rather than “global warming”, write Alistair Raymond Bryce Soutter and René Mõttus in a new paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. But while some follow-up studies had been conducted on this issue, with fairly mixed results, no one had yet carried out a direct, pre-registered replication. So Soutter and Mõttus attempted to both replicate the original result and expand it to two other countries: the United Kingdom and Australia. (This gave them a total sample size of 5,717, about double that of the original study.)
How environmentally friendly am I really? It’s a question we ask ourselves more and more frequently as the climate emergency remains firmly at the top of the political agenda. So we dutifully eschew single-use purchases, lug our tote bags to the supermarket instead of using plastic bags, and take part in Veganuary, safe in the knowledge we’re doing our bit.
But, as it turns out, we may be overestimating how well we’re actually doing at being green. According to new research published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, most of us tend to magnify our own environmental efforts, believing we’re doing more than others even when that isn’t the case. The finding is the latest in a number of studies to demonstrate the “better-than-average” effect: we also believe we are more intelligent than others, for example, and that we work harder.
Watching climate activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech to world leaders at the UN in New York last September, it was impossible not to be struck by her depth of feeling. For me, it was deeply moving. For a guest speaking on Fox News, this was “climate hysteria” from a “mentally ill Swedish child”.
It’s hardly news to point out that Thunberg is polarising. For everyone who feels shocked and shamed into doing whatever they can — no matter how small — to mitigate climate change, there seems to be someone else who finds her outrage unbearable. But would Thunberg really be more broadly appealing if she did things any differently? Are there, in other words, any lessons from psychological research that she and other activists might bear in mind?
Rhetoric around climate change often calls on us to think of future generations: if we don’t suffer the effects, then our children and our children’s children will. For some, this sense of obligation could be motivating. But for others, the distant time frame may be a barrier to truly grappling with the issue.
Now, a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests one method to get people thinking about their duty to future generations is to think about the past.
With an ever-increasing focus on environmental sustainability, more and more of us are changing how — and what — we consume. We’re encouraged to recycle; charges on plastic mean we take our own shopping bags to the supermarket; and market research suggests that campaigns against fast fashion have been partly responsible for a rising interest in second-hand clothing. But how do these kinds of behaviours relate to our well-being? New research in Young Consumers suggests that buying green may not be the way to personal bliss, and that instead we should be focused on curbing our materialistic urges altogether.
How do you persuade people to do the “right thing” when there’s a personal price to pay? What convinces someone to spend time and effort on a task like recycling batteries, for example — or literally spend cash by giving to people in desperate need?
It’s an important question. “Finding mechanisms to promote pro-social behaviour is fundamental for the wellbeing of our societies and is more urgent than ever in a time of key global challenges such as resource conservation, climate change and social inequalities,” write the authors of a new paper, published in Scientific Reports. Across a series of five online studies involving a total of more than 3,000 participants, Valerio Capraro at Middlesex University of London and colleagues provide evidence for a cheap, effective method: simply “nudging” people to reflect on what is the morally right thing to do. This simple intervention had some impressive effects, even increasing actual charitable donations by close to half.
When responding to science denialism (or, for that matter, any sort of false or harmful information), such as claims that vaccines are ineffective and harmful, it can be difficult to establish the right strategy. Because of the fast-paced way in which information spreads these days, there is a risk that responding to a given inaccurate claim can give it further oxygen, leading the falsehood to reach more people who are vulnerable to being misled, and so forth. There’s also the possibility of the “backfire effect” – people who already endorse the false claims reacting to the debunking information by digging into their beliefs further (though there’s now evidence such fears were overhyped, and that the backfire effect may not be a regular occurrence overall).
To better understand when science-denialism debunking does and doesn’t work, Philipp Schmid and Cornelia Betsch, both of the University of Erfurt in Germany, ran a series of studies that involved online respondents being exposed to various sorts of science debates. The results, published in Nature Human Behavior, offer some useful insights about how to best stem the tide of science denialism.