The article below is translated and reprinted with permission by Nyt Fokus Magazine and author Esther Michelsen Kjeldahl, philosophy student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and at the time of writing affiliated with the Center for Information and Bubble Studies, University of Copenhagen.
When I talked to Esther about translating the article I asked her to explain what the term “to study bubbles” entails exactly:
To study bubbles in part entails to use theories of social psychology to explain why individually rational members of a social group sometimes act irrationally while in the group.
OK, and in this regard it’s important we understand what “normal” behavior is in a social group:
The concept of social norms is used in social psychology to denote common practices or common beliefs. That is, what is “normal” to do or think in a social group. Social norms are of great importance to our behavior, because most of us do not want to deviate too much from the communities we are a part of. However, our perception of what our friends and acquaintances do and think can be misguided.
Great, and with that out of the way, I’ll let Esther do the rest of the talking:
You are not alone
We want to change our carbon-intensive behavior, but fail to do so out of fear of becoming marginalized in our social environment. However, we underestimate how much our friends and acquaintances worry about the climate. Efforts to create changes in behavior must therefore have a social focus.
We fly and shop like never before and we eat lots of meat. Actions that all harm the climate. But does that mean we do not worry about climate change? With newspaper headlines such as “Danish air travelers are more concerned about the climate than our Swedish neighbors,” “New survey: 1/3 of consumers do not care about the climate,” and “Young people do not care about global warming,” one might think we couldn’t care less. But this is not the case. According to a Eurobarometer report from 2017 examining EU citizens’ attitudes towards climate change, 78% of Danes think that climate change is a “very serious problem.” The big question is, then, why our private climate concerns seem to have no particular effect on our harmful behavior.
A good explanation might be that it is due to outdated social norms and unfortunate group dynamics. Social norms are of major importance to human behavior, if we are to believe social psychologists who study how our behavior and beliefs are influenced by others, i.e. what others do, what others say they do, and what we think others think about this and that.
The concept of pluralistic ignorance describes the strange situation where people mistakenly think they are more or less alone with a private attitude which they in fact share with most people. This concept may be the key to understanding our apparent inaction regarding climate change.
The majority of Danes share the view that climate change is a very serious problem. But are those 78% aware of the fact that their beliefs are as widespread as they are? A major Australian study from 2012 showed that the majority of the Australian population vastly underestimated how many others believed climate change was real. At the same time, they overestimated how many denied it. Other studies point in the same direction: We think we are more isolated with our climate concerns than we really are.
Pluralistic ignorance has been studied in various social contexts throughout the 20th century. Examples include racial segregation in the US in the 1950s, excessive alcohol consumption in American universities, and gender discrimination. In all cases, it was generally believed that the majority backed obsolete practices, despite the fact that only a minority actually did. The fact that people mistakenly believed that there was great support for the practices was enough for them to be continually followed.
When the social environment misleads
Such cases of pluralistic ignorance may occur for many reasons. They may, for example, arise because people have become more enlightened about a subject, and as a consequence thereof have changed their attitude, but the social environment has not changed at the same pace. Here, the surroundings reflect an outdated practice that misleads people into believing that it is still backed up by the majority.
Take the example of gender discrimination. Researchers Jacob and Michal Shamir show in their article “Pluralistic ignorance across issues and over time,” published in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly in 1997, that the Israeli population gradually went from being against to being pro gender equality between 1980 and 1990. However, the old structures did not change with the attitudes of the population. Men remained dominant in politics and leadership positions and continued to receive higher wages than women. As the gender issues were discussed very little, the population retained the false impression that most people continued being pro discrimination, that most people continued to believe men were better leaders, and that most people even believed that men were better at driving a car than women!
There are similarities between the gender example and the climate issue. It has traditionally been highly desirable to travel a lot, to own a lot, and to be able to dress fashionably. The following quote from the classic self-help book “The Magic of Thinking Big” by David J. Schwartz from 1959 is a good example: “Success means many wonderful things. Success means personal prosperity: a fine home, vacations, travel, new things…” In the book, Schwartz describes, among other things, that if you want to succeed, you must look like a success: ”The well-dressed person’s appearance tells positive things. It says: ‘Here is an important person: intelligent, wealthy and reliable.'” The idea that it is desirable to consume excessively is old.
But times have changed. We know that high consumption of air travel, meat, clothing, and other goods is harmful for the climate. Nevertheless, we continue to follow these obsolete practices. And as airline tickets have become cheaper and we have become richer, our consumption has continued to rise. This provides a strong but misleading signal that excessive consumption is still accepted as the norm. And as the newspaper headlines at the beginning of this article show, it is tempting to conclude – falsely! – that our excessive consumption reflects an indifference towards the climate.
We are herd animals and toe the line
One might ask, then, if our incorrect perceptions of other people’s attitudes really explain our lack of behavioral changes. If we are really so bound by social norms. According to social psychology, the answer is yes. To a large extent, we act in accordance with what we perceive as the prevalent social norm in the groups we identify ourselves with. We are herd animals who just want to fit into the community.
If, as an individual, you feel that your social environment does not worry about the climate as much you do yourself, it can therefore be difficult to share your concerns about the climate and declare a personal end to flights and intake of Argentinian steaks. You could be excluded from the cozy, carbon-intensive communities most of us are a part of.
As philosopher Clive Hamilton and psychologist Tim Kasser describes in their conference article “Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and Stresses of a Four Degree World” from 2009, individuals that worry about the climate may risk alienating friends and family by expressing their concerns. The fear of being seen as a self-righteous, alarmist eco tree hugger discourages them from switching to a more sustainable lifestyle.
Such a self-censorship of worries about climate and wishes for changes in lifestyle can happen even though the individuals are not in fact surrounded by people who fail to recognize the severity of climate change. It is enough that individuals believe that their friends and acquaintances do not worry about the climate. Pluralistic ignorance is sufficient to prevent people from making serious behavioral changes.
Climate information needs a new focus
Information about the harmful effects of air travel, unrestricted shopping and meat consumption is everywhere. 8 out of 10 believe that climate change is a serious problem. But this information does not seem to have any genuine effect on our behavior. The information we need is that our friends and acquaintances are also concerned.
It is important that we correct the misperceptions we have about each other’s climate beliefs. This can be done by means of so-called norm-based interventions. They are all about educating people about the true social climate norm, and getting what others really think about the climate out in the open.
A norm-based intervention requires a survey of the distribution of attitudes in the population as well as an examination of what we are thinking about each other. If it turns out that we underestimate the proportion of others who think climate change is a serious problem, it may be beneficial to carry out such an intervention.
In the article “Changing Norms to Change Behavior,” published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2016, social psychologists Dale T. Miller and Deborah Prentice analyze and compare the results of norm-based interventions in general (not specifically climate). The authors conclude that the efforts have been particularly successful in reducing alcohol abuse among college and university students. They informed the students that the majority did not actually support the practices of excessive drinking they themselves upheld by drinking more than they wanted. As soon as the students became aware that their unhealthy behavior was partly due to group dynamics, they were free to act according to their true preferences: to drink less.
The realization that an individual is not alone with the desire to drink less has been shown to be sufficient to reduce alcohol intake. These interventions have been far more fruitful in creating behavioral changes than paternalistic campaigns informing about the harmful effects of alcohol.
One might take the socially focused efforts towards drinking culture as an inspiration and launch campaigns that indicate that the majority does not really support our current carbon-intensive behavior. Perhaps this can set people free to follow their true preferences: to fight seriously for the climate in the eleventh hour.
Free the worries
Our lack of behavioral changes not only isolates the few that make a real effort to reduce their personal emissions. It also reduces the motivation of politicians to pursue bold and ambitious climate policy.
If instead people were involved in climate campaigns and were more willing to publicly express their concerns, anger and grief, politicians and companies would feel forced to take stronger action in order to change our current, catastrophic — but convenient course. An effective climate initiative engaging both citizens and politicians must have a more social focus than it has today.
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