Psychology & Climate change: Risk perception

Note: This article is my once-in-a-while exploration of human behavior and climate change. While it is in no way related to health care, it may be directly related to health.

The cold temperatures across the nation this week have had some individuals scoffing at the notion of global warming. On the other hand, most scientists explain that extremes of weather are part of the whole pattern of global warming; these freezing temperatures are the other side of the extreme heat we experienced this summer and fall.

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) report on global climate change is a thorough examination of our current understanding of human attitudes, emotions and behavior relevant to climate change. Whether or not you have seen the movie “An Inconvenient Truth“, you might benefit from reading the introductory section (pages 24-30) of the APA report which does an excellent job of reviewing the background of the intersection of human systems and earth systems, and how human behavior impacts earth systems.

Section 1 of the report explores how people understand the risks presented by climate change. One of the primary challenges in changing behavior is to understand the perspective of the person whose behavior we are trying to change. Any psychotherapist worth his or her salt will tell you that a good assessment of the individual with whom one is proposing to work is essential to effective therapy. The nature of the assessment is less important than its outcome…an understanding of the experiences and motivations of the potential consumer of services, along with a sense of their strengths and limitations.  The beliefs and points of view of that person, about their problems and about their power to impact those problems, is crucial in designing a treatment plan.

So before we design a climate behavior treatment plan for our families, our neighbors and our communities, we must understand how they perceive the potential risks of global climate change. Psychological research leads us to believe that the impacts of distant or rare events tend to be underestimated. From pages 6 and 7 of the APA report, we learn that

…small probability events tend to be underestimated in decisions based on personal experience, unless they have recently occurred, in which case they are vastly overestimated. Many think of climate change risks (and thus of the benefits of mitigating them) as both considerably uncertain and also as being mostly in the future and geographically distant, all factors that lead people to discount them. The costs of mitigation, on the other hand, will be incurred with certainty in the present or near future…. Yet, emotional reactions to climate change risks are likely to be conflicted and muted because climate change can be seen as a natural process and global environmental systems perceived as beyond the control of individuals, communities, and quite possibly, science and technology.

Accordingly, when we communicate about the potential risks to humans of global climate change, we must recognize that different human responses will result based upon the individual’s perception of the risk to them and theirs posed by climate change. If the risk is seen as low and completely outside their control, no change to current behavior will occur. Even if the danger is seen as high, if it is seen as outside the ability of the individual to have an impact, there will still be no change in behavior.

Based on this understanding of how people behave in the face of risk, we must assure that our interventions allow people to experience a sense of efficacy and empowerment. We need to believe that the things we are doing to affect climate change can possibly have the effect we seek. Without such a belief, we will not likely take action.

For most of us, the source of information about climate change has been media reports of the observations of climate scientists. Few of us have personally seen melting glaciers or arctic ice. Psychological research on risk communication is important in this regard. What is the most effective way to communicate about climate change to inform individuals and communities and to empower them to take action? Just how should we be communicating the reports and projections of climate scientists to maximize change in human behavior? Will we be successful in enlisting the media as educators rather than as sensationalists or naysayers?

The summary of section 1 of the APA report (p 48-49) clearly states these issues.

Feeling (or not feeling) vulnerable and at risk in the face of climate change seems to be instrumental in moving (or not moving) people to action (see section 4), and thus the sources of these feelings are in need of further study. Research in cognitive psychology suggests that certain perceived characteristics of climate change (e.g., that it is “natural,” not new, and in principle controllable) may lead citizens as well as policy makers to underestimate the magnitude of the risks. Other psychological research provides additional hypotheses related to emotional reactions to climate change such that the absence of feeling at risk may be a psychodynamic reaction (see section 3), the result of psychic numbing or denial in the face of overwhelming and uncontrollable risk (see section 4 and 5). These explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though sometimes contradictory in elements of their hypotheses (e.g., is climate change seen as a controllable or uncontrollable risk?). Such contradictions need to be resolved by empirical investigations.

The ability of different educational interventions in shaping perceptions, attitudes, and action related to climate change should also be a topic of empirical research (see section 6). Existing knowledge about the relative impact of direct personal experience vs. more abstract statistical information on the perceptions of risk in domains like financial decisions or with the relative effectiveness of emotional vs. analytic processes in prompting protective action can guide the design of different educational interventions about likely climate change scenarios and their repercussions and about the pros and cons of different courses of adaptation to climate change and/or mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

If you have not yet taken a look at the APA report, you should do so. Set aside some time to focus on the issues facing us as behavioral and psychological experts, then share your perspectives here. To enter your comments, just click on the title of this article and type in the box at the bottom of the post.

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