Can Social Psychology save the Earth? | Psychology and Climate Change

Climate Change is undeniable, with CO2 levels in our atmosphere being the highest that they’ve ever been in 3 million years. The role of overconsumption and overproduction in climate change cannot be overstated. We live in a world of excess, with our gas-guzzling SUV’s to the virtually disposable cheap clothing shipped in from China. We just can’t stop consuming, it would seem. But with this knowledge that our overconsumption is destroying our planet, there is a distinct lack of personal immediate reactionary response.

I would argue, that when it comes to environmental concern, I have the usual layman’s attitude. I’d be a vocal supporter but when it actually comes to doing things, I let things slip by the wayside. Sure, I’ll wash out my yoghurt carton begrudgingly, but sometimes, meh, maybe I won’t. For all my talking and my verbal support and condemnation of those who deny climate change, there is a distinct lack of urgency in my actions. My complacency speaks much louder than anything I could ever say. Unfortunately, looking at the continuingly rising sea levels and atmospheric CO2 levels, my complacency and inaction is indicative of others too, the well-meaning majority.  The cost of our boundless consumption is astronomical, so why do so many of us, myself included, act like climate change and overconsumption is a slow-burning problem?


Social psychology can offer a lot of insight into why we react the way we do. In order to resolve a problem, it is important to understand those who caused it, us. Social and environmental psychologists have explored different ways to encourage people to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviours in order to reduce our effect on the environment.

Environmental destruction is a result of over-consumption. Consumption is a behavioural phenomenon, and therefore, according to social psychologists, can be controlled. Increasing sustainability involves technological solutions, of course, but as consumption is a behavioural phenomenon, there are also psychological solutions to increase sustainability. We, as humans, can’t always be relied on to make the best decisions. Our pesky emotions have a habit of skewing our decision making. However, social psychology can enlighten us as to the best ways to encourage positive change. Two of the best ways to encourage behavioural change are education or control.


One of the possible psychological solutions to curbing overconsumption is to increase awareness as to the consequences of that behaviour. Sounds promising, right? Sadly, evidence supporting the effect of education on behaviour is unconvincing, with links between attitudes and behaviour often not aligning. Education, attitude, and stated intention are (un)surprisingly poor predictors of behaviour and behavioural change. Say one thing, and do the other is a tale as old as time really.

The strength of the predictive relationship between attitude and behaviour depends on a few factors. Typically, when an attitude has emerged through direct experience, this will usually result in that attitude predicting behaviour more accurately. So in terms of overconsumption and climate change, does that mean that in order to get people recycling more and buying less, their concern has to be generated from the experience of having seen the detrimental effects of their actions? Thankfully, it’s not that simple, so maybe we don’t need to go to the brink before we realise we must change our behaviour. Studies have shown that education can induce behaviour change and increase environmentally friendly behaviour and change attitudes towards climate change when the desired behavioural change was clear and doable. The smaller your steps towards sustainability, the more likely you are to adopt that behaviour and small steps are in no way not impactful when looked at on a larger global scale.


This leaves us with the second method for behavioural change: control. Slightly ominous, I know but perhaps, it sounds better, if I use the word “incentives” instead, though it doesn’t have the same dramatic effect. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with a little nudge in the right direction, and once again, this nudge can produce outstanding results. Take for example in 2002, Ireland introduced a plastic bag tax, charging 22c per plastic bag. Naturally, plastic bag use dropped by 94%.  Pretty effective, eh?

After the plastic bag tax was introduced, the use of plastic bags dropped dramatically

Changing the social contingencies can effectively reduce consumption, in other words, TAX IT. The effectiveness of these public policies has been shown on numerous occasions (sugar tax, incentive recycling etc). In 2010, the American Psychological Association reported a number of strategies that can effectively reduce environmentally destructive behaviour, these initiatives were primarily taxes and rationing to reduce fossil fuel use and consumption. This report went further discussed why climate change, though acknowledged by 70% of Americans as a “very serious” to “somewhat serious” problem, was still not considered as of important issues as other social concerns such as economy and terrorism. It was suggested that this lack of concern derives from our inability for adequate risk appraisal.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Global climate change appears to be an example where a dissociation between the output of the analytic and the affective system results in less concern than is advisable, with analytic consideration suggesting to most people that global warming is a serious concern, but the affective system failing to send an early warning signal (Weber, 2006).[/perfectpullquote]

Understanding human behaviour is crucial to being able to change it. If we can understand what people core values and concerns are, this info can inform environmental campaigns, public policy and education. Social psychology can effectively help alleviate human’s destructive behavioural tendencies in favour of some more environmentally friendly behaviours.

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