Santa Fe Institute

Human psychology and why we can't seem to get our heads around climate change

April 15, 2016 1:21 p.m.

Feel like your conservation efforts are a drop in the bucket? Don’t want to bike to work if your neighbors get to drive?

A new article co-authored by a number of SFI-affiliated researchers explores the psychological barriers that drive our distinct lack of “foresight intelligence” regarding climate change and our failure to take meaningful mitigating steps.

Among the article’s 14 co-authors are SFI VP for Science Jennifer Dunne and SFI Science Board members Kenneth Arrow and Marc Feldman. The lead author is Lee Ross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University.

“When it comes to confronting environmental perils that lie in the future and unfold gradually, our species generally has failed to exercise foresight intelligence—that is, to recognize, diagnose, plan, and act to address those perils before it is too late to do so,” they write.

In the article, they detail the features of climate disruption and human psychology that combine to create barriers to effective action. The short-term, seasonal, and regional variability of weather patterns, for example, contributes to what the authors call "the noisy-signal problem" that obscures the gradual temperature increases characteristics of climate change, leading to a perception of non-urgency. Another example, "time frame, beneficiary, and end point problems," acknowledges that evolution has wired human beings as small-group animals concerned mostly for short-term and close-kin survival; this makes it difficult for us to make costly decisions now whose payoffs won't be apparent for decades.

The authors also review several encouraging, albeit modest, successes in persuading Americans to conserve energy through “psych-wise” initiatives, such as an information campaign in a San Diego suburb that provided homeowners the energy-use statistics of their own homes and of their neighbors homes, taking advantage of small-group psychology to achieve behavioral changes.

Read the article in BioScience (April 13, 2016, subscription required)

Read the article in Stanford News(April 13, 2016)

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