How cognitive, attentional, and perceptive biases affect our approach to climate change
In the 21st century, climate change is one of the biggest threats to society as we know it. Far from being just a scientific phenomenon – the increase of the mean global temperature from pre-industrial levels – it has deeply rooted economic, social, and political implications. Despite its dire and massive consequences, humanity seems to be unable or unwilling to act effectively to tackle this problem through mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Why is it so? Aren’t we interested in preserving life on this planet? When talking about climate change, cognitive biases affect us all.
First, the title of this article already entails the presence of an overconfidence bias: we acknowledge the existence of climate change, but – unless we have had first-hand experience – we believe that its effects will never affect us personally. Thus, climate change does not occupy the forefront of our minds
, because it is not perceived as an immediate threat. It does not exist if you cannot see it… right?
This bias also represents one of the reasons why the consensus around the science of climate change has taken a long time to build, not only in the scientific community but especially among everyday people. The other main reason has to do with the dimension of the issue itself: climate change is a phenomenon far too extended both on the geographical and on the temporal scale. The evolutionary pressure, over millions of years, have made humans far more expert in focusing on immediate and finite threats; climate change, instead, forces humans to think in the very-
We could therefore state that, concerning climate change, humans are myopic. This introduces us to a third element, namely low intergenerational discount rates, or the preference of individuals for the present with respect to the future, therefore pushing most of the costs of fighting climate change to future generations. This is due both to hyperbolic discounting, which humans make use of in decision-making, and a general lack of concern for future generations. Evolutionary theory shows that it is hard for humans to care for more than just a few generations in the past or ahead in the future.
Furthermore, climate change is mostly portrayed in a negative frame, entailing the so-called framing effect: since focusing on the negative aspects of the climate catastrophe or crisis, could bring humanity to a paralysis due to fear and hopelessness, and prevent us to meaningfully act, it may be the case to implement much more a positive frame, focusing on the new possibilities that this challenge poses to us.
The bystander effect and the sunk-cost fallacy also play a role. Individuals tend to push action to a non-identified third party, such as governments and international organizations, and forget about their potential as citizens to induce such change. Regarding our habits and our systems, despite being harmful for the environment, humans tend to stay on the same course of action, suffering from a painful type of inertia. Virtually all types of cognitive biases could be related to our approach to climate change, but it is particularly relevant to focus on some attentional and perceptive biases further.
Coming back to the issue of achieving general consensus, not only on the existence of climate change, which is now virtually accepted, but on the mitigation and adaptation strategies to adopt, it has been shown that some attentional biases could be at play, further hindering a frank discussion on which actions are most needed.
Luo and Zhao, researchers respectively in the Department of Psychology and at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, Canada, have conducted a series of visual experiments to investigate this impact. One experiment involved an eye-tracking framework while participants were observing an animated graph of the rise of the mean global temperature in the past century. On average, individuals who were more liberal “tended to pay more visual attention to the rising phase of the global temperature curve (after 1990) relative to the flatter phase (from 1940 to 1980)”. The effect was also present when manipulating attention by highlighting the rising phase and the flatter phase alternatively in two different conditions. Conservative participants, on average, did not linger significantly on the rising part of the graph and were not more likely to sign climate petitions and donate to environmental causes when the rising part was highlighted. In conclusion, the main result is that “people with different political orientations have different attentional biases to climate change information, and these biases can alter their subsequent climate actions.”
Even more interestingly, literacy and numeracy abilities influence the way humans take sides when debating climate change. On the one hand, an “identity-protective cognition thesis suggests that people with high numeracy skills use their quantitative reasoning capacity to selectively interpret quantitative information on controversial issues like climate change to comply with their prior political values”; on the other hand, a study by Newell et al. (2016) showed that people are sometimes skeptical of the anthropogenic nature of climate change because they do not understand the mechanism of greenhouse gas emissions accumulation. This insight pushes for an increase in importance in our education systems of earth sciences, which at the moment are treated poorly most of the time.
Moreover, selective perception biases are pervasive in approaching climate change: first, as for many other critical issues of contemporary life, people selectively expose themselves to news media that is consistent with their political motives, further increasing polarization. This effect is additionally increased when a person is integrated into a group of people with similar opinions, further dampening critical thinking: perception of both in-group and out-group norms of climate beliefs can be biased. Often
, instead of sparking a debate about the topic, leading to the suppression of different points of view by self-censoring.
Another interesting perceptual bias is the underestimation of carbon footprints associated with actions or objects: first, “people tend to underestimate the GHG [Greenhouse gas] emissions associated with individual actions and they are incapable of translating the climate impacts across different actions”; second, the negative footprint illusion is the tendency to estimate a lower carbon footprint of a combined group of eco-friendly items and ordinary items than the carbon footprint of conventional items alone, despite them being more in the combined group. These perceptual biases show how, as consumers, despite the myth of the “green consumer” and the ubiquitous debate about individual responsibility, we can do little about climate change, as we are incapable of correctly quantifying the impact of our own choices.
To conclude, researchers seem to convene that communications tools should be customized to the receiver of the message. This lack of communication adaptability is once more pervasive in the current debate on climate change and hinders climate action. Some straightforward solutions include aligning communication with people’s ideologies and motivations to focus attention and framing climate change consistently with people’s values, providing accurate information on in-group and out-group norms and, finally, simplify complex information through visualization. To dig deeper into this field, the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University features a comprehensive guide on the psychology of Climate Change Communication, with concrete tips on how to enhance communication and which further analyzes the consequences of the biases presented in this article.
King, Matthew Wilburn. “How Brain Biases Prevent Climate Action.” BBC Future, BBC, 8 Mar. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190304-human-evolution-means-we-can-tackle-climate-change.
Luo, Yu, and Jiaying Zhao. “Attentional and Perceptual Biases of Climate Change.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, vol. 42, 2021, pp. 22–26., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.02.010.
“Introduction.” CRED Guide | The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, http://guide.cred.columbia.edu/guide/intro.html.