Home Mind & Brain Cognitive Biases Can Impact Climate Change Behaviour. Here’s Why

Cognitive Biases Can Impact Climate Change Behaviour. Here’s Why

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As the COP26 commenced in Glasgow last week, the inevitable discussion about climate change in the UK has ramped up once again. Given that this is no new phenomenon, the psychological aspects that underpin attitude and behaviours towards this global crisis is of psychological interest.

Cognitive biases are the systematic pattern of deviation from rationality in judgement. And it is this individual’s construction of reality – rather than the objective input – that can distort reality and may dictate behaviour. In particular, there are three types of cognitive biases which may hinder our fight against climate change: optimism biaslearned helplessness, and self-serving bias.

Optimism bias is the mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower than is realistic. It is the belief that, ‘It’ll never happen to me,’ and could help explain why although there were indications of tackling the climate change crisis back in the 1970s, the situation has only worsened. Take for instance, the case of consumerism which has now become a huge societal norm across the world.

Optimism bias also underpins why some people challenge climate change attitudes with the argument that they will have passed away by then, and so it won’t matter to them. But we are at the stage now where – although that may be true for some people – their children and grandchildren will certainly experience a tremendous decline or recovery in humanity. Perhaps reminding them of this will help combat this attitude. Sir David Attenborough made this explicitly clear in his speech at COP26, stating he hoped this would finally give us the impetus to make a change. During this speech, a woman can also be seen on the video saying: ‘You think we have control, we actually have no control,’ – which perhaps sums up this bias perfectly. 

But these attitudes may also be a result of learned helplessness, which is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation; and so do not try, even when opportunities for change become available. Prior to the COP26, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem, despite that being a primary objective for the past 20 years.

When people have actively engaged in a behaviour for so long with no evidence of positive change, it is likely that learned helplessness will take hold; and so lose faith in tackling climate change, deeming it a ‘losing battle’. This is also seen when people claim that it is too late to make any difference, and that the damage is already irreversible – despite climate change experts advocating the opposite.

There are also examples of self-serving bias regarding this area. This is the common habit of a person, or in this case entire countries, taking credit for positive events or outcomes but blaming external factors for negative events. Perhaps this is why many will praise themselves for the positive impact they claim to have on the environment while pointing the finger at other countries for the lack of progress of battling climate change. An example of this would be China crediting themselves for their reforestation policy while blaming Brazil for high carbon emissions. Ironically, Brazil boasts having lower carbon emissions than other countries while having a severe deforestation crisis in the Amazon rainforest. With Sir David pointing out that no country in the world is yet sustainable, this self-serving bias is nothing more than political, and emphasises the need to manage this bias, in order to work together to achieve this essential common goal.

It’s likely that there is conflict between optimism bias and learned helplessness; and self-serving bias negatively impacting the progression of managing climate change. It may be that wider knowledge of these cognitive biases are required. Managing optimism bias so that people are aware that this is going to happen to generations already living on the planet if we do not act, while also dealing with learned helplessness ensuring the public believe that we can achieve this change is critical. In doing so, we may be better placed to control these biases, and in turn finally make meaningful steps towards a globally-sustainable future.

Daniel Walker is a PhD researcher and a graduate teaching assistant at Edge Hill University.


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