The Psychology of Climate Change: Report #1

By Nicole Betz, Ph.D. candidate, Northeastern University

I am a fifth year Psychology Ph.D. candidate in the Conceptual Organization, Reasoning and Education (CORE) laboratory at Northeastern University. The research summarized herein is a component of my dissertation. I plan to write additional blog posts on my dissertation findings in the coming months.

Volunteers participated in a psychology study investigating the cognitive processes that contribute to misunderstandings about climate change. Here, I describe the guiding theory of my work and report preliminary findings.

              As humans, we tend to perceive our species to be pretty special. We like to think that we have an abundance of unique abilities, and that we are exceptional to other species. I have recently begun to investigate the effects of this pattern of thinking, known as anthropocentrism, on the general public’s understanding global climate change, and their concern about the phenomenon. I was particularly interested in how people thought about how humans will be impacted by climate change. 

To investigate this, I designed measures to determine what people think about humans’ ability to survive climate change. One anthropocentric way of thinking about climate change is the belief that humans won’t be impacted negatively by climate change, even if other species are.  When describing climate change effects during in-depth, semi-structured interviews, 20% of my sampled participants said exactly this.  One participant, for example, said, “people won’t be out in the streets dying…that’s because humans are adaptable. But other animals that are less adaptable will die.” Similarly, I’ve also found that participants believe that humans are less likely than other species to experience negative repercussions from climate change, such as habitat loss, as shown in my graph below. These beliefs directly contradict evidence; due to climate-related coastal flooding, people are already losing their homes and people have certainly died at the hands of climate change from heat waves, natural disasters, and other impacts.

Nicole Betz Graph.JPG

              Another way that we may think anthropocentrically about climate change is overlooking that the survival of the human species is tied to the survival of other species. Of course people rely on many other species for food, medicine, clothing, etc. However, my research suggests that some people underestimate our reliance on other species to survive climate change. I’ve tested this by asking questions like the example below.  The correct answer to this question is that humans and rice depend most on one another to survive climate change; rice is a critical component of human diet worldwide and humans cultivate rice because of this. If people think anthropocentrically, however, they would choose the two non-human organisms (in this case, rice and leeches) as most interdependent. I asked participants several questions like this, and then measured the number of times that they grouped the two non-human animals together. For about 60% of these types of questions, the participants choose the anthropocentric responses.

Nicole Betz Question Example.JPG

These studies are the first to investigate how people’s intuitive ways of thinking about the world influence understanding of climate change. Other studies in my dissertation will look at how reliance on anthropocentric thinking in general contributes to misconceptions about climate change, and concerns about climate change. I am also looking at how anthropocentric thinking and misconceptions change across formal environmental science education. Stay tuned to this blog to see further reports on this line of work!

Richard Hyman