Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t JoNova – a psychology handbook produced by the Australian Psychological Society recommends people suffering debilitating distress and helplessness about impending climate doom can recover their ability to function in society by becoming climate activists.
It is common for people to have very strong feelings about climate change. The reality is actually very frightening. It is not just the phenomenon and threat per se, but the implications of climate change for individuals, human society, all other species, and the planet, that make this such a frightening, confronting and
existential threat and concern. People can feel anxious, distressed, helpless, pessimistic, guilty, angry and stressed, amongst other feelings (Clayton et al., 2017a). How people respond to these feelings is very important. People can react in many unhelpful ways – e.g., by trying to minimise the threat, distract themselves and blame others, or by becoming helpless and resigned to the disaster. A more useful response is to anticipate, identify and manage these feelings so that we can properly accept the reality of climate change and not avoid it. Psychologists call this a skill of emotional self-regulation and it’s an important part of climate adaptation and coping.
Learning to cope with the feelings we have about climate change ensures that:
- We don’t try to avoid the problem in order to avoid the feelings
- We don’t become overwhelmed by these feelings or burn-out
- We can keep functioning well in our everyday lives.
Model the pro-environmental behaviours that you would like other people to take up
What we see people doing matters. Our brains are highly tuned to noticing others’ behaviours and copying them. This happens automatically and often unconsciously.
- Make your pro-environmental behaviour very visible so others can notice it.
- Leave behind as many ‘behavioural traces’ as you can. These are physical signs of the behaviour you engage in, like your bike helmet sitting on your desk signaling that you ride your bike to work.
- Transmit the meaning of your pro-environmental behaviour as well. People are always
seeking the meaning of behaviour and actively interpreting what they see. By explaining the reason for your actions, you give other people another reason to copy them (Harré, 2011).
- Attach stickers to cars and letterboxes and other places that communicate your pro- environmental behaviours, like using solar power or a greywater system.
- People are more likely to copy models they see are rewarded (Bandura & Walters, 1977). Highlighting the satisfaction of engaging in a sustainable behaviour is one way of making the reward (in this case, the satisfied feeling) more visible, and therefore more likely to be copied. Also, research evidence very powerfully tells us that internal, self-motivating, reasons for doing things are much more influential and sustainable than external rewards and benefits (Deci & Ryan, 2013). And again, we can see that there are multiple benefits of action, both in reducing our footprint and giving us a sense of inner satisfaction.
Promote norms that ‘everybody’s doing it’ and ‘it’s normal to be green’
- Provide explicit statements about the pro-environmental behaviours that people are already doing.
- The most useful norms are descriptive norms that say ‘everyone’s doing this’ and ‘It’s normal to do this’.
Challenge climate change denial when you hear it
Psychological research on science denial provides a model, based on inoculation theory, for how to debunk myths about climate change (often spread by misinformation) which cause confusion and uncertainty in the community (Cook & Lewandowsky, 2012).
- Take care not to repeat the myth up front when you are debunking it. This can often reinforce it! Instead, start with the facts.
- Familiarise yourself with the five different
techniques deniers often use to distort facts:
Fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible
expectations, cherry-picking evidence, and conspiracy theories (Diethelm & McKee, 2009).
- Use the Fact-Myth-Fallacy approach to correct misinformation (see box below)
I’m personally horrified that people who are suffering genuine distress because of their climate delusions are being encouraged to engage more fully with the source of their distress. I’m not a psychologist but that doesn’t seem a sensible route to a cure.