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It's natural to behave irrationally
Climate change is just the latest problem that people acknowledge but ignore

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

To a psychologist, climate change looks as if it was designed to be ignored.

It is a global problem, with no obvious villains and no one-step solutions, whose worst effects seem as if they'll befall somebody else at some other time. In short, if someone set out to draw up a problem that people would not care about, one expert on human behavior said, it would look exactly like climate change.

That's the upshot of a spate of new research that tries to explain stalled U.S. efforts to combat greenhouse-gas emissions by putting the country on the couch.

Polls -- including one last month -- indicate that a sizable, though shrinking, number of Americans believe climate change is happening. Most of those people think it is a "serious" problem. So, rationally, shouldn't they be doing more to fight it?

The problem, many psychologists say, is the "rationally."

Those who are concerned that a real problem is being left unaddressed have called for a change in the way that green groups talk about climate, which has traditionally been heavy on warnings about drought and stranded polar bears. Instead, researchers suggested a new set of back-door appeals, designed essentially to fool people into serving their own -- and the planet's -- best interests.

"We are collectively irrational, in the sense that we should really care about the long-term well-being of the planet but when we get up in the morning it's very hard to motivate ourselves," said Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, who gave a keynote speech last month at a Washington conference devoted to understanding why people don't do more to save energy.

Psychologists studying the issue say that the now-familiar warnings about climate change kick at emotional dead spots in all human brains -- but especially in American brains. Researchers have only theories to explain why people in the United States have done less than those in such places as Europe and Japan. Some think Americans are culturally leery of programs the government might develop to target climate change, trusting instead that the free market will solve major problems.

One U.S. researcher thought television is to blame: All those TV ads have made Americans more focused on their own wants, she theorized, and less likely to care about the long-term good.

No matter where the public's complacency springs from, psychologists have seen this kind of thing before, Ariely said: "That's why we don't exercise, and we overeat, and we bite our fingernails. . . . It's not something where we're going to overcome human nature."

Last month, shortly before Monday's start of an international conference on climate change, the United States and China made pledges to work on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. But even these underscored the point that much more remains to be done: The United States offered to cut emissions less than environmentalists say it needs to; China offered to cut in ways it was planning to anyway.

Obstacles to progress

The obstacles to progress -- internationally and in the U.S. Senate, where a climate bill is stalled -- aren't just mental.

Climate change is a policy problem that has "psychological distance": In layman's terms, there's a sense that this is a problem for somebody else or some other time.

Although researchers say the climate is, in fact, already shifting, psychologists say many Americans still don't feel close to the issue. And though scientists say that change is unequivocal, the science can be confusing: It is complex, and vocal skeptics are still saying the evidence is not at all conclusive.

Another problem with climate change is called, more obscurely, "system justification." This refers to humankind's deep-seated love for the status quo and willingness to defend it.

This is why climate change isn't like the hole in the ozone layer: In that crisis, the solution was to substitute new chemicals for old ones, and the changes happened mainly inside refrigerator coils and spray cans. In this one, they could alter basic things about modern life, everything from light bulbs to cars to air travel.

A third problem is that psychologists say humans can fret about only so many things at once -- the technical term is the "finite pool of worry."

The proof of that might be found in last month's Washington Post-ABC News poll, which showed that belief in climate change had actually fallen 13 percentage points since 2006, from 85 percent to 72. It could be that new worries such as lost jobs and swine flu crowded old ones out of the pool.

Psychological researchers say one possible way to overcome all these obstacles is to frame the changes needed to curb carbon emissions as "saving" the American way of life, instead of changing it. Another is to pair warnings about the climate with concrete suggestions about what to do, so people can act instead of just stewing in worry.

Another is to tap into two powerful human impulses: to be like one's neighbors and then to beat them at something.

Call in the elephants

In one small study around San Diego in 2007, researchers hung four fliers on doorknobs. One told homeowners that they should conserve energy because it helped the environment. One said saving energy was socially responsible. One said that it saved money. The fourth said that the majority of neighbors in the community were doing it.

The researchers waited and then read the meters. The houses with the fourth flier showed the most change.

"Simply urging people -- or telling them that it's a good idea to recycle or conserve energy -- is the same as nothing," said Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University who worked on the study.

One of those listening to the psychologists is Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who introduced a bill calling on the Department of Energy to study "social and behavioral factors" that affect energy use. It passed a House committee, though Baird said some Republicans called it "mind control." "These [ideas] can all be met with derision until you try it," Baird said.

For now, however, some psychologists say they're frustrated that their ideas seem to have been picked up only unevenly by environmental groups.

For instance, an ad campaign running in the United States and 34 other countries calls for progress at international climate talks in Copenhagen using a play on the city's name: It becomes "Hopenhagen." The ads' strategy was devised by the firm Ogilvy & Mather, where an executive said they, also, wanted to leave behind gloomy messages about the climate.

But Janet Swim, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who led an American Psychological Association study of climate change messages, said something was missing. "What is a person supposed to do after seeing the message?" she wrote after seeing one video ad.

Another new ad, from the World Wildlife Fund, shows an elephant, birds and other wildlife dialing U.S. senators' offices. "So who will call to speak up for those who have no voice?" the narrator asks.

Better, Swim said. The commercial gives a concrete order: Call your senator. But, she said, it might communicate a "norm of inaction" by implying that no actual people are calling now.

The best example of climate psychology in action might be programs run by the Arlington energy efficiency software company Opower. In 12 areas around the country, the firm sends mailings to utility customers. The sheets compare each customer's power usage to that of neighbors with similar houses and offer tips for catching up, such as turning off lights and lowering the temperature settings of water heaters.

It works, the company says, lowering electricity usage by 2 percent in several test cases. The fliers never say a word about climate change.

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