Psychology Matters

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The Role of Psychology in Climate Change

Psychology has a critical role in the successful mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. There is a fundamental and potentially catastrophic disconnect between the compelling empirical evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and the lack of global, meaningful and sustained behavioural response to this challenge. Within this gap sits our evolved psychology, blind to distal consequences, illusory in its optimism, emotive in its processing and partial and self-serving in its reasoning, (Gifford, 2011). Our collective adaptive response to climate change requires overriding these evolved heuristics that have served us so well in our environment of evolutionary adaptation and instead learning to think, make decisions, communicate and set goals in a way that matches the complex and wicked challenge that anthropogenic climate change presents to our species’ survival and flourishing.

There are four key domains of psychology that need to be modified in order to provide effective climate change leadership in organisations. Firstly we need to perceive risk differently. Secondly we need to modify our behaviour through engaging our moral intuitions more effectively to induce appropriate levels of indignation and moral intensity at the intentionality of ongoing environmental degradation. Thirdly we need to reinforce change through the differentiation between symbolic and substantive goal setting that mediate between greenwashing and absolute and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Finally we need to integrate the development of prosocial and pro-ecological worldviews that challenge the notion of the natural environment as an external and invulnerable enabler of perpetual economic growth.

Managing Cognitive Biases in Risk Perception

Our evolved psychology privileges experience over analysis, promotes present rewards over future responsibilities, deceives us with illusory optimism of techno-salvation and encourages us to see climate change as an unintended consequence of economic growth, (Van der Linden, 2016). However increasingly these deceptive intuitions are at odds with the overwhelming empirical evidence  of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and environmental degradation that is increasingly part of our lived experience. There are a number of cognitive biases  that militate against the accurate and realistic appraisal of the magnitude of threat that climate change poses to organisations and human civilization more generally. These include the recency bias where the future costs of behaviour are discounted and the illusory optimism that promotes both the sense of personal invulnerability and the lack of preparedness that has characterised response to more immediate challenges like the Covid19 pandemic.

There is substantial evidence that humans possess two very different types of information processing systems, (Kahneman, 2011) System 1 works on a fast processing intuitive level, is affect based and works by associative activation. Once risk is appropriately understood and quantified we can begin to make the necessary adaptations appropriate to managing the risk. It provides a fast track immediate assessment of people and scenarios but is full of bias and epistemological short cuts. System 2 is a slow track reasoning system that works by propositional logic and often supports the intuitions of system 1 leading to confirmation bias. This can lead to the process of motivated reasoning where we arrive at a perspective through fast track biased processing and then seek to support this perspective with a more considered approach. Given that system 1 is highly experiential we can see how present experience can mitigate against meaningful action against an undiscernable future threat. Many of these biases can be managed collectively and teams present a readily available opportunity to counteract systemic bias through the allocation of informal roles that make the underlying assumptions explicit.

Moral intuitions and climate change

Why despite the overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, is climate change not more widely perceived as a moral issue? Moral issues revolve around justice and fairness and are triggered by our moral intuitions. However moral intuition are just that – fast track and automatic heuristics that are replete with bias and unquestioned assumptions, (Mazutis & Eckardt, 2017). The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that our intuitions come before our reasoning and much of our reasoning is an attempt to confirm our intuitions. This partially explains why reason and data alone have been insufficient to persuade the majority to act decisively on climate change. In addition we tend not to feel moral outrage if consequences are perceived as unintentional, (Haidt, 2007, Markowitz & Shariff, 2012). Cognitive biases prevent the appreciation of the moral intensity of climate change by reducing the perceived magnitude, probability, immediacy and proximity of the threat. Circumventing evolved biases like moral intuitions that inhibit an accurate appraisal of climate change requires a recognition that different data will trigger different intuitions and these need to be tailored to the preferences of the audience. These moral intuitions based on a sense of loyalty, fairness, liberty, hierarchy, care and sanctity are not evenly distributed and tend to align with political beliefs. Consequently the message of climate change needs to range accordingly from moral outrage to conservation and stewardship. Multiple models of behavioural change emphasise the central roles that motivation and belief plays in changing behaviour (Mitchie, 2011). In addition behavioural insights tells us that to encourage compliance with new behaviours they need to align with the EAST acronym – easy, attractive, social and timely.

Cognitive Bias Example Consequence Mitigation
Perceptual Availability bias Low frequency events are ignored Nudge theory

Public commitments

Optimism Over-confidence Reliance on techno-salvation Backcasting &  premortem
Relevance Anchoring Targets appear small and remote Stretch targets

Annual criteria

Volitional Diffusion of responsibility Free rider effect Devil’s advocate

Thought experiment

Table 1 : Cognitive Biases and Climate Change Mitigation (Mazutis & Eckard, 2017

Substantive Environmental Goal Setting

Thirdly the behaviours that need to change in order to mitigate the risk of climate change need to be specified, measured and monitored. This involves sophisticated goal setting that is substantive rather than symbolic in nature. Goal setting is one of the most successful psychological processes ever developed in the history of behaviour change, (Nowack, 2017). Much of goal setting theory is now appearing in the climate change literature including science based targets, the sustainability development goals as well as individual targets set by countries after global agreements like the Paris accord. Unfortunately the comparability of emission reduction targets is frequently poor as there are no agreed criteria for what effective emission reduction targets look like. What is apparent however is the difference between substantive and symbolic goal setting, (Dahlman et al, 2019). A recent review of over 1000 companies concluded that effective target setting behaviour could be differentiated by its purpose, type, scope, ambitiousness and timeframe. Thus organization with an internal purpose of emissions reduction, an ambitious goal of absolute rather than relative emissions reduction, a broad scope of targeted emissions that included Scope 3 (indirect) emissions were categorized as substantive rather than symbolic attempts at greenwashing.

Developing Ecological Worldviews

Finally we need to consider the underlying values and worldviews that support either denialism or effective climate change leadership. Denialism in its broadest sense is partly a function of the cognitive biases that prevent us appreciating the severity of complex, future-orientated problems. In addition denialism and inaction are predicated on both the values and worldviews held by the individual. An anthropocentric worldview that perceives the environment as invulnerable and nature as lacking intrinsic value is unlikely to support the changes in behaviour necessary for effective climate change mitigation, (Schein, 2015). Similarly a worldview that privileges the economy over the environment, resource conservation and preservation of biodiversity is unlikely to be finely tuned to the leading indicators of anthropogenic climate change. In contrast the research on climate change leaders suggests they have a well-developed sense of both the intrinsic value of nature and the vulnerability of the ecosystem in which the economy is embedded, (Schein, 2015).

Improving Engagement with Climate Change

(Van der Linden et al, 2015)

  1. The Human brain privileges experience over data- examples need to be personal.
  2. People are social beings who respond to group norms – highlight the pro-environmental behaviours of others.
  3. Future events are frequently discounted – emphasise the contemporary impacts of climate change.
  4. Framing action in terms of gains is likely to be more effective than projects losses – what are the benefits of immediate action?
  5. Motivation matters – both short term extrinsic incentives and long-term intrinsic pro-environmental goals are key.


Dahlmann, F., Branicki, L., & Brammer, S. (2019). Managing carbon aspirations: The influence of corporate climate change targets on environmental performance. Journal of business ethics158(1), 1-24.

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American psychologist66(4), 290.

Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science316(5827), 998-1002.

Hoffman, A. J. (2015). How culture shapes the climate change debate. Stanford University Press.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Markowitz, E. M., & Shariff, A. F. (2012). Climate change and moral judgement. Nature Climate Change2(4), 243-247.

Mazutis, D., & Eckardt, A. (2017). Sleepwalking into catastrophe: Cognitive biases and corporate climate change inertia. California Management Review59(3), 74-108.

Michie, S., & Johnston, M. (2012). Theories and techniques of behaviour change: Developing a cumulative science of behaviour change.

Nowack, K. (2017). Facilitating successful behavior change: Beyond goal setting to goal flourishing. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research69(3), 153.

Schein, S. (2017). A new psychology for sustainability leadership: The hidden power of ecological worldviews. Routledge.

Van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Improving public engagement with climate change: Five “best practice” insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(6), 758-763.