Submitted by: Erin Leonard, Ph.D.  Contact: leonarem@mcmaster.ca

How do our brains process threat? How do we play tricks on ourselves? How do our group affiliations or “tribes” affect our information processing? These thought-provoking questions were answered last night at Laurentian SETAC’s Pub night in Guelph by Dr. Anne Wilson from Wilfrid Laurier University. As humans, we have evolved cognitive shortcuts that allow us to react effectively to immediate threats but that miscalibrate responses to distant or abstract threats (like climate change); we also tend to devalue outcomes in the future through a process called Temporal Discounting. Further, our emotional selves hijack our cognitive selves to the point where our reasoning serves the goal of assuaging negative emotions like fear or guilt rather than actively dealing with impending environmental issues. We are also powerfully swayed by the opinions endorsed by our groups (including political affiliations) because belonging and acceptance are often more important to us than accuracy. These cognitive, emotional, and intergroup biases help to explain why some people remain skeptical even in the face of mounting evidence of climate change.

What hacks or strategies can we adapt to change our way of thinking?

1) Individual actors often get discouraged by feeling like only a drop in the bucket, but individual actors can cause a ripple effect and powerfully influence social norms.

2) Don’t use fear as a message, it tends to cause paralysis instead of change. Instead convey the problem but also show the progress that has been made and provide examples of how to make a difference.

3) Communicate issues in a way that doesn’t conflict with someone’s world views.

4) Push back on the polarization of issues (e.g. for vs. against climate change) and instead highlight common ground.

5) Talk about climate change! A majority of people never have these conversations, especially with a scientist.  Be the scientist that they have talked with.

Take home message: Beliefs about climate change are fragile. Conformity and social norms are powerful, but it only takes a few people to change the social norms.

Remember, the future has not been decided.  As this Guardian article points out, we can effect changes.  We must choose hope!

Suggested readings by Dr. Anne Wilson:

  • “Don’t Even Think About It” by George Marshall
  • Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66(4), 290-302.
  • 33 reasons why we can’t think clearly about climate change – https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22730290-300-33-reasons-why-we-cant-think-clearly-about-climate-change/