Our big green blind spot

People are perfectly designed to look the other way on climate change. But behavioural science can help. By Izzy Brennan.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in October that we have just 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C and avert the most severe consequences of extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice. The IPCC’s experts said that to do so would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.

But what is our capacity to make these changes?

As the environmental campaigner and writer George Marshall puts it, “our brains are wired to ignore climate change”. As bleak as this sounds, the field of behavioural science can help us to understand why this is and what we can do about it.

Climate change isn’t an immediate threat

The behavioural theory known as present bias tells us that people find it hard to prioritise future concerns over our current needs. Our perception of the world is also influenced by how readily personal experiences of a given concept come to mind – a concept known as availability heuristic. Climate change is particularly challenging in this sense as it will expose us to events that most people, particularly in the western world, have not yet experienced.

Emotions also play a major role in our decision-making processes. The negative nature of climate change headlines can simultaneously desensitise people to possible doomsday outcomes and leave people feeling hopeless about any positive impact their personal changes can make. Furthermore, if news stories criticise people’s lifestyle choices, it’s tempting to avoid them altogether to avoid experiencing any cognitive dissonance (or mental conflict).

As the leading psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman neatly summarises, climate change is “a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future”.

The role of diet

What we decide to eat, particularly our meat and dairy intake, can play a large role in tackling climate change. However, changing dietary behaviour comes with its own specific set of challenges.

It has been shown that sufficient knowledge, the best attitude or the right intention do not always lead to action. The government’s five-a-day campaign may have increased awareness that we should eat five portions of fruit and veg a day, but research shows this hasn’t translated into changed behaviours. Eating is also a very habitual behaviour, with research from one of Behaviour Change’s own projects showing that over 90% of families cook the same meals over and over again.

Deploying tools from behavioural science

By understanding our shortcomings, we can use behavioural science tools to reduce our climate impact through the food we eat.

Take the theories of social norms and salience: we are strongly influenced by what others do, particularly by those we admire or feel are like us, and our attention is drawn most to what is novel and seems relevant to us.

A recent experiment tested both tools to investigate the impact of menu design on vegetarian food choice by people who normally eat meat or fish. It found that including vegetarian items in the main list of dishes instead of in a separate section can make them seem like a more normal choice for people who are not vegetarians, and increase the proportion of people who select a vegetarian dish. Making a dish more visible on the menu or giving it a more appealing name were also effective interventions for people who described themselves as infrequent eaters of vegetarian food (although this had a negative effect for those who reported eating vegetarian food more frequently!).

We and many other experts have often found that simply making the target behaviour as easy as possible is the most effective approach. In one project, which involved encouraging families to eat more veg, we nudged people with one-step tips to add veg to the most popular home-cooked meals rather than trying to inspire them to try entirely new recipes.

Tackling climate change is far from easy. However, looking at it through a behavioural science lens allows us to better understand how people think and why they act in certain ways, and gives us tools to make it as easy as possible for people to make better decisions.

Izzy Brennan is project manager at the social enterprise Behaviour Change


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