More and more, attempts to explain why people behave the way they do in politics have turned away from the actual substance of issues and toward the traits of individuals themselves. Thus, this election season, there has been considerable focus on why Donald Trump appeals to voters, with psychologists noting that traits like “authoritarianism” — a preference for clear, unambiguous and decisive answers — help to explain the phenomenon.
So what about other political identities — like, say, being a major tree-hugger? Clearly, such people aren’t authoritarians, but then, what are they?
Past research has highlighted that those who care about the environment tend to be “Open to Experience” — wanting to try out new things and new experiences — and also to have high levels of empathy, or sensitivity to the suffering of others (including not just humans, but plants and animals). New research, though, suggests there’s a more intellectual side to being green as well. In particular, it finds that those with a tendency to engage in what is called “systems thinking” — embracing complex, multifaceted causal explanations for phenomena and recognizing the unpredictability of how nature works — also tend to value the environment more and to be more concerned about climate change.
When it comes to the role of systems thinking in environmentalism, “the idea is that it’s encouraging people to think about longer chains of causality, nuanced aspects of a complex system, and how any behavior in that system can have both intended and unintended consequences, and those can be hard to predict,” said Oberlin College psychologist Paul Thibodeau, author of a new study on the matter just published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, and co-authored with his colleague Stephen Lezak.
If there’s any icon of systems thinking, it might be the founder of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin. At the close of “On the Origin of Species,” he famously described an ecological system and how evolution had managed to create its diversity and complexity:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Systems thinking has long been explored in the fields of environmental research and sustainability studies, but attempts to probe the psychology underlying it are far newer, Thibodeau said. A recently constructed psychological scale used to measure this mind-set, or cognitive style, includes items like “When I have to make a decision in my life, I tend to see all kinds of possible consequences to each choice,” “I like to know how events or information fit into the big picture,” and “All the Earth’s systems, from the climate to the economy, are interconnected.” Respondents are asked to rate how much they agreed with each statement, which is typical of such experiments.
In their new study, Lezak and Thibodeau conducted three fairly large experiments to probe the role of systems thinking in environmentalism. In all three experiments in the new study, respondents came from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and numbered over 400.
The first study in the new paper looked at how political ideology, support for science, the tendency to embrace conspiracy theories and belief in the free market (both of which have previously been linked to climate change denial), and systems thinking all influence views on climate change. And the researchers found a significant correlation between systems thinking and being worried about the climate issue.
Moreover, in a statistical model that tried to explain just how much this mindset contributes to a perception of climate risk in comparison with other factors, it actually played nearly twice as large of a role as did political ideology. However, systems thinking had only half as large of an influence as whether one has a conspiratorial mind-set (which tends to dampen climate change concern) and only a quarter as large of an effect as whether one accepts a variety of well-established scientific propositions, such as that HIV causes AIDS.
“We’re finding that it provides some additional predictive value for a measure of climate change risk perception,” said Thibodeau.
It is important to note that systems thinking is also correlated with things such as acceptance of science and political liberalism (and negatively correlated with traits like conspiratorial thinking), so the constructs under consideration here aren’t entirely distinct from each other. The researchers note, for instance, that systems thinking is tied to enjoying thinking in general and to being open to new experiences and ideas, and is “anti-correlated with a tendency to think in more rule-based authoritarian terms.”
The second two studies, meanwhile, found that people who are more inclined toward systems thinking are inclined to attribute a higher monetary value to the environment, and that when it came to valuing a fishery, they took into account not only economic reasons for doing so, but also environmental and social reasons.
Despite its overlaps with other traits or constructs, Thibodeau says that studying systems thinking remains valuable both because it is at least partly distinct, and also because you can actually prompt or teach people to think more systemically, whereas you can’t easily change their politics, he explains.
The paper concludes by suggesting that systems thinking can be prompted in part by metaphors that are used to describe environmental issues. For instance, the study suggests that describing a natural park as a beautiful “pearl” may not put people in a systems-oriented mind-set, whereas describing it as the “backbone” of a larger system might have that effect.
“By using language that highlights more nuanced aspects of causality, and more complex interrelationships between humans and the environment, I think we can encourage people to think more systemically about the human-environment relationship,” said Thibodeau.