Averting the worst outcome of the climate crisis will require a huge amount of very thoughtful and brave work. Unfortunately the crisis has a number of qualities that make it especially hard to organize around. It seems remote in time and place, its causes and impacts are diffuse, and the solutions require major social transformation. In his oddly titled book “What we think about when we try not to think about global warming,” Norwegian psychologist and economist, Per Espen Stoknes argues that climate change activists need to take seriously the ways the human brain processes information in order to get people on board to make the kind of changes society urgently needs.
The book shares the results of psychological studies on how the human brain tends to work, so that we can build our actions in ways most likely to succeed in motivating people as they are, not as we wish them to be. And the book develops powerful messaging strategies, also based on research-tested approaches to messaging and action. The book is short, readable, and full of helpful suggestions. This review is a summary of what I took to be the most important insights, but I suggest everyone involved in climate action reads it. The details and examples are well worth the short time it takes to read.
Based on evolutionary psychology, Stoknes claims that,
the human animal comes with powerful neural wiring for preferring self-interest (me and us!) status (better than thou! More sex than thou!) imitation (herd!) short-term (now! Never mind the future!) and spectacular risk (the vivid, not the impalpable!).
Climate communicators need to help people to see that the climate crisis will impact them and the people they care about. They need to find ways to shape the culture such that doing the right things for the climate confer social status. They need to give people a sense that many people are concerned and acting. They need to highlight short term negative impact such as fires and floods. And they need to help people to see that the risks are imminent and manageable.
From cognitive psychology he draws on the concept of framing, the narrative structures through which we understand the world around us. If we look at the climate crisis through the frame of loss and sacrifice, it will remain hard to gain traction. People hate losses more than they love gains. Helping people to see how much money they will save with better insulation and solar energy is a more motivating frame than telling them that the path to success is to give up on the pleasures of a consumer lifestyle.
The other important concept he draws from cognitive psychology is cognitive dissonance. Many people hear the bleak messages climate activists put out as accusations. They want to think that they are good people, and if climate activists say that good people don’t live the way the rest of society tells them they should live, then they will resolve the dissonance by distancing themselves from the truth about the climate crisis messages they hear. The way people resolve cognitive dissonance is generally to change what they believe, rather than changing how they act.
How we think about a claim is deeply impacted by the social circles we run in and how our associates see the world. And that gets us to his insights from the psychology of identity. Here is the most stunning finding from research he reports on: “The better science literacy someone holding a conservative ideology has, the more wrong, she will be on the climate science.” Educated conservatives have the facts, but they live in social groups whose identities are invested in not believing in them. The more you throw facts at them, the more activated their systems of denial become.
Stoknes tells the story of a white South African woman who changed her view of apartheid when someone working in her home was almost killed. The change started with the emotional, and then worked toward the cognitive.
Such a break always involves emotions that bring about a shift in the organization of personality, and thus a subtle shifting of identity…. What is needed is the work of a cultural movement similar to the ones that dismantled apartheid, abolished slavery, or took on nuclear arms. What remains unpredictable is when this steady, seemingly ineffectual, exhausting work will result – or co-evolve- into a seismic shift in cultural denial. But one day after the swerve, what used to be resisted and denied becomes a new, shared reality.
He summarizes this section with the five defense walls that make it hard for climate messages to hit their target: Distance, the issue seems remote; Doom, if it is seen as a disaster that requires sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid; Dissonance, if what we know conflicts with what we do, then we will try to not know it; Denial, if we can deny that it is happening we can continue to feel good about ourselves; iDentity, “cultural identity overrides the facts.”
The fossil fuel industry has done a great job using all of these aspects of human psychology to lull people into inaction.
The fossil fuel industry has done a great job using all of these aspects of human psychology to lull people into inaction. Stoknes then argues that we need to acknowledge the hard psychological realities we are up against. We need to “move more with the flow of the human psyche…. People want to live in a climate-friendly society because they see it as better, not because they get scared or instructed into it.” He proposes the following to deal with these limitations:
Make the issue feel near, human, personal, and urgent. Use supportive framings that do not backfire by creating negative feelings. Reduce dissonance by providing opportunities for consistent and visible action. Avoid triggering the emotional need for denial through fear, guilt, self-protection. Reduce cultural and political polarization.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is his critique of green consuming. He argues that for some people using green products makes them feel so virtuous that they can then justify flying from Europe to Thailand for a vacation. He argues that pushing personal lifestyle changes