UNSW: “Climate change and the tyranny of psychological distance”

Anxiety solution and freedom from fear and escape from tortured thinking and depression concept as a group of tangled barbwire or barbed wire fence shaped as a human head breaking free as a metaphor for psychological or psychiatric icon.

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

The University of New South Wales, birthplace of the Ship of Fools expedition which got stuck in the Antarctic ice, is concerned that people rapidly switch to other priorities, when disasters which don’t affect them personally are no longer front page news.

Climate change and the tyranny of psychological distance

03 SEP 2020   CAROLINE TANG 

With last summer’s bushfires largely out of the headlines, has the psychological distance people might feel towards climate change increased?

UNSW Sydney’s Professor Ben Newell has been researching climate change psychology for a decade and his work focuses on how to tackle the preconceived notions people have which cloud their decision-making in the face of an uncertain future. 

Prof. Newell said the past summer’s fire season was “extremely bad” but he wondered what would happen to people’s attitudes towards climate change if the bushfires were less severe this summer. 

“Last summer’s smoke haze was a big concern because some people were seeing it as the new norm. They shrugged and said, ‘Oh, it’s smoky today and we’ve had a couple of months of it, whatever,’ but it seems wrong to already be at the point of accepting that’s just the way things are now,” he said. 

Prof. Newell defined psychological distance as a “construct” in one of his studies: “Psychological distance refers to the extent to which an object is removed from oneself; for example, in likelihood of occurrence, in time, in geographical space or in social distance,” he said.

“So, if people perceive climate change as psychologically distant from themselves, they could construe it in more abstract terms, potentially impeding action if the threat is perceived as less real, tangible or relevant.

“For example, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic has been a wake-up call for years now but because they are sparsely populated, it’s not front and centre of many people’s concerns. 

“There’s a lot of literature that shows people adapt and acquiesce to seeing lots of the same type of stimulus over and over again – so, people become more and more likely to say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just the same thing’,” he said.  

“Sometimes even I find myself thinking, ‘I can’t think about this stuff anymore because it’s just too hard’, but I’m reminded of the necessity to keep talking about it, to keep reiterating the message.

“Even if there is a danger of habituation or disengagement, the danger of not talking about it is much worse. So, the continuous reminder these things are happening now and will keep happening again has to be part and parcel of it.”

Read more: https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/climate-change-and-tyranny-psychological-distance

What I find fascinating about Professor Newell’s words is the suggestion that he has to make a continuous personal effort to overcome his own natural tendency to habituate, to dismiss climate change as a high priority issue.

If even believers have to keep kicking themselves to believe, the end of the climate movement may be closer than we think.

35 thoughts on “UNSW: “Climate change and the tyranny of psychological distance”

  1. If you try hard enough, you can talk yourself into believing just about anything.

    Especially if you’re being well paid to do so.

    • On the other hand, if something is so unsubstantial and there is no evidence of effects on your world, why would you worry about it. Attention naturally goes toward more real but also future issues, such a putting a new roof on the house very 20 years and painting your house every 8 years.

      Committing economic suicide or a significant portion of your income to an issue that is only on paper or in the media, with evidence of a very biased opinion and agenda, ii would be irresponsible as an adult in the real world.

      • Until I read the caption for the picture, I thought that the Barbed Wire head had exploded from too much Psychological Transference
        Perhaps like those 10:10 videos

  2. “Climate Change™” is a purely theoretical construct, based on “not much science at all”….

    Climate change psychology is even worse, being just a fantasy construct based on “feelings” as a method to jump on the climate band wagon and swill from the climate trough.

    This is an area where people like John Cook reside, in their little anti-science backwater sewer.

  3. In another post, the one about the Carrington Event I think, someone commented about the possibility that California should drop into the Pacific Ocean any day now. Does that mean that anyone who remains in California is an idiot?

    On the other hand, I am reminded of Erich Korngold a Jewish composer who wisely left Europe in 1934.

    I am also reminded of my current favourite quote:

    Mr. Hoover, if you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you and you have to battle with only one of them. Calvin Coolidge

    I don’t think there’s a pat formula for how to deal with all the things that might possibly happen to you some time in the future. Sometimes, in the light of 20 20 hindsight, the only answer is to run away. Most of the time the answer is to develop robustness or antifragility or something like that.

    • Charlie Brown from Peanuts had the answer. ‘No problem is so big that you can’t run away from it.’

      JF

    • The problem with the Coolidge quote is that you don’t know which problems will run off the road and which one will remain so that it has to be dealt with, ahead of time.

      • Yep. Never mind just the problems you think might be coming, there will be the occasional black swan. You have to be able to recognise the problem a bit before it actually hits you and have the resources to respond to it. Both of those requirements are far from trivial.

    • I think it was Mark Twain who observed –
      “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, about things that never eventuated”

  4. As long as NGO’s, Advocacy Groups, and unscrupulous “scientists” and business people are making millions off of “Climate Change”, it will continue as a mantra.

    This all boils down to defunding these people from government grants and waking the public up to stop funding the advocacy groups. If that could be achieved, the entire enterprise collapses and they will move on to some other cause that makes them more money.

    (A “scientist” is unscrupulous when they knowing exaggerate or falsify findings in order to receive more funding – which is pretty much the definition of a “climate scientist”. One could argue that scientists that know better but are afraid to speak out are cowards, but I would rather just call them normal people – most people are not courageous until cornered.)

    • Robert,
      Some, like the Pantifa leader who was recently arrested, collapse on the ground in a fetal position! It says volumes about the type of people who join up to riot because their panties are in a wad!

  5. So people don’t care about stuff unless it touches them personally. Give this man a Nobel Prize, or as Basil Fawlty would say ‘join Mastermind. Subject: the bleeding obvious’

  6. “some people were seeing it as the new norm. They shrugged and said, ‘Oh, it’s smoky today and we’ve had a couple of months of it, whatever,’ ”

    Who were these people, Professor? What are there names? Did you hear them say this? Or are you just blindly making stuff up?

    “Even I”. Even you, Professor? Surely not! What with your learning, and study, and insight, and career, even you? The horror.

    We are so fortunate to have such wise heads guiding humanity. (/sarc off)

  7. The trouble for Climate Alarmists in maintaining the Climate Crisis Rage is that people have begun to notice that the yearly weather is rather exactly the same as it was 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 even 60 years ago. Older people in particular have given up worrying about this fantasy and are concentrating on troubles closer to them.

    • You are right. I remember the “ice age is coming” scare of the late 60’s and early 70’s. However I do worry about the latest apocalypse, not for myself, but for my grand kids. If this nonsense is not debunked soon they will be living very different lives and it will certainly not be good.

    • Exactly.
      People don’t see drowning polar bears or calving ice sheets or “ ocean acidification”.
      What they do see is that summers are still summers and winters are still winters and, in Australia “ unprecedented” droughts and bushfires are thoroughly “precedented” when they consult the extensive historical records or indeed their own recollections.
      We are in the 45th year of global warming and despite acres of propaganda not much warming is happening in the Earth’s energy system.

  8. “So, if people perceive climate change as psychologically distant from themselves, they could construe it in more abstract terms, potentially impeding action if the threat is perceived as less real, tangible or relevant”

    An average global temperature anomaly of 1°C cannot be conceived as a relevant threat, sorry to drop that bombshell on you.

    A lot of people live with massive yearly temperature differences with little to no problems, some like me, actually look forward to those changes.

    What is the relevant threat, that us unenlightened just can’t make tangible?

    Make it quick, I’ve got to go to work and pay the bills….. omnipresent threats.

  9. ““For example, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic has been a wake-up call for years now but because they are sparsely populated, it’s not front and centre of many people’s concerns. ”

    This line from the Ship of Fools university.

    Oh irony, you humour me so well.

    The problem with our no doubt highly ‘educated’ friend is he says all the right words in the right order, then fails to reach the rational conclusion.

    People DON’T continue to care if they can’t see either the problem or a personal solution. People, or at least sane ones, realise they can’t solve all the problems all of the time and instead concentrate their energy into providing for those nearest and dearest. It is only those who believe ‘They Know Best’ who seem to think there is a universal answer for everything.

    Sorry Highly Educated University Person, but when you promise us an apocalypse, we expect to see some zombie hordes. Until that happens I have bills to pay and have to deal with the known.

  10. “For example, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic”

    LOL..

    1.. What melting of the Antarctic.. Only the part above active volcanoes is melting at all.

    2.. The same ignorance about the Arctic that we see constantly from the likes of griff.
    1979 was the anomaly, A high extent up with the LIA.
    Arctic is still nowhere near recovered down to the Holocene norm.

    These “professors” ??? are scared……. but its because they are ignorant.

  11. The reason is the data python. Everyone knows the saying (which I now can’t remember LOL) about an elephant and data points. The implication of that is, with more and more points we can make them fit more and more complex shapes. But the reverse is also true.

    It is far easier to match a complex false idea to a very few data points which can easily by cherry picked to fit a viewpoint, than it is to match the idea with an overwhelming amount of data. As we get more and more data the wriggle room for misinterpration slowly disappears as the data python progressively strangles falsehoods.

    Likewise, climate alarmism has always relied on very short run data series which including a lot of long-term natural variation tend to have one or other trend, and therefore e.g. there is always a trend that can be interpreted as taking the graph off to infinity and so predicting disaster.

    However, if you then show people a long time series – such as CET, or you wait a few decades until there is more data, then the “data python” progressively strangles the ability to falsely interpret the data, because we can see that the swings they they cherry pick happen time and time again, and so the more data, the less wriggle room left until it cannot be manipulated or falsely interpreted by even by the most cunning campaigner to create alarm.

    And the data python even works for those who haven’t a clue about the data. Because, althouh initially, you had to be a scientist or engineer to be able to put the global temperature data into context, as we all get more familiar with the subject and we see all see the alarmist claims fail to materialise time and time again, even someone who hasn’t a clue what the numbers means, can put the alarmism into context.

  12. Seriously- he’s a professor and gets paid for spouting this garbage? The only polite term for the is ” navel gazing. “

  13. “There’s a lot of literature that shows people adapt and acquiesce to seeing lots of the same type of stimulus over and over again – so, people become more and more likely to say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just the same thing’,” he said.”

    Yes, it’s called Chicken Little.

  14. “For example, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic has been a wake-up call for years now but because they are sparsely populated, it’s not front and centre of many people’s concerns.”

    I thought that Arctic warming was the main thing that the public are being frightened with,. Look at Roger Hallam from Extinction Rebellion, he says that Arctic warming will drive such extreme weather that it will kill 6 billion people within ten years.
    But AMO and Arctic warming are normal during each centennial solar minimum.

    https://media.springernature.com/m685/springer-static/image/art%3A10.1038%2Fs41598-017-13246-x/MediaObjects/41598_2017_13246_Fig2_HTML.jpg

  15. So many people dote on disaster stories that I suspect that they enjoy them. I don’t believe in climate change because I can see no evidence that it exists in any way that could possibly affect my own life. Also, I tend to like my most people, and am loathe to believe, as so many climate activists do, that people are greedy fools who are destroying the Earth in the furtherance of their own immediate pleasure. I myself am a avid fan of immediate pleasure. At least for me.

    I have never read an opinion piece in a newspaper warning of climate catastrophe that was not written either by somebody who was very young or somebody who stood to gain, financially or politically, from convincing other people that there was a climate emergency.

    I’ve lived in Western Canada all my life, and I’m 68. My impression is that the winters are now moderately warmer than they were when I was a boy, but the summers are not noticeably hotter. And anyway, what’s the difference since, like most people, I spend 90 percent of my time indoors.

    But the seas are rising. Last year, they rose the height of a stack of three Canadian pennies. I consider myself a lucky man that the Rocky Mountains are between me and the Pacific Ocean, acting as a natural dyke to the inevitable deluge that threatens us all.

  16. ”Climate change” means different things to different people. That’s the nature of such an abstract concept. For many people, it is every weather event that makes the 6 O’ clock news. Some will go further and believe it is every item on the news. Except the token gesture ” feel good happy ending ” stories.

    Eamon.

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