Is behavior more important than knowledge

The psychology of climate change : Why we know a lot about global warming but do little

The numbers, they don't seem to match. Take flying, for example: almost half of Germans can imagine avoiding air travel for the sake of the environment. Nevertheless, the number of air travel continues to rise. Or with meat: a good 60 percent would be willing to eat significantly less of it, but meat consumption in Germany remains constant. You can also see it in big cars: a quarter of Germans would be in favor of completely banning SUVs. But the gas guzzlers are booming in sales.

It seems that there is a wide gap between aspiration and reality when it comes to climate protection. There is no shortage of knowledge about the consequences of global warming: researchers are warning of ever faster rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather conditions and the extinction of animal species. And they say: action must be taken, and action must be taken quickly.

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The way of dealing with this knowledge is different. “A large part of the people in Germany perceive climate change as a serious threat. But many have not yet managed to change their behavior accordingly, ”says Torsten Grothmann from the Chair of Ecological Economics at the University of Oldenburg. Only: What psychological effects mean that people know a lot but do little? A search for clues in environmental psychology.

How our brain works

Part of the explanation lies in evolution. In the early stages of their development, people's daily challenge was survival. The dangers were concrete and immediate. "We did not learn evolutionarily to deal with a threat like climate change," says Gerhard Reese, professor of environmental psychology at the University of Koblenz-Landau. “When we are in danger of being eaten by a tiger, we have reaction patterns. We can run away. There is no script for climate change. ”Some human thought patterns that have been useful for human survival in the course of evolution - for example because they helped us to filter information or to react quickly - are even a hindrance to climate change.

This includes our perception that the present is more important than the future. US scientists examined the brain activity of their subjects in an MRI machine. They noted strong brain activity when people thought of themselves in the present. But when they thought of themselves ten years into the future, their brain activity was weaker, similar to thinking about a stranger, for example an actor. Scientists see this as brain physiological confirmation of the theory that most people are less motivated to do things that will only benefit them later. They place less value on the reward that awaits them in the future.

Another trap is “unrealistic optimism”. Studies have shown that people are more optimistic about their own lives than about others. “When it comes to climate change, many people think: it won't affect me, maybe I don't have to take action at all,” says Reese. In addition, there is the so-called “spectator effect” - the feeling that someone else will avert the danger, for example politics.

Feeling is more important than knowledge

The processing processes in the brain are also to blame for the inactivity of many people. “Two processing processes run simultaneously in our brain: On the one hand, the experience-based one, which takes place quickly and emotionally. On the other hand, the analytical one, slower and less emotional, ”explains scientist Grothmann. Analytically, many people would come to the conclusion that climate change is a threat. “But their personal experiences have long told them that not much bad has happened yet.” And if both processing processes lead to different results, the experience-based assessment usually prevails. In the meantime, however, the experience is changing in this country as well: In particular, the past drought in Germany has remained in the consciousness of many. "The feeling of concern has increased."

A question of point of view

How people deal with knowledge about climate change also depends on their ideological point of view. A high level of knowledge about climate change does not necessarily mean that it is perceived as a higher risk. Grothmann reports on a US study that showed that people who were close to the Republicans there, the more people they knew about climate change, even less assessed the threat. That seems illogical at first, but it is due to the way we process information. “Knowledge does not simply flow into our brain and is mapped 1: 1 in our memory. It is distorted, twisted, selected, filtered, ”says the scientist. In the end, what corresponds to our values ​​and norms is saved. What contradicts this is suppressed or doubted. “For many Republicans it is part of the ideology that climate change either does not exist or that it is not caused by humans. It is similar with AfD supporters. "

The fact that there are people who deny climate change or at least claim that it is not man-made does not always have to do with party ideology. "For others it is a defensive reaction because the climate crisis overwhelms them and so they pretend it doesn't exist," says Grothmann. In evolutionary terms, this is something like killing or an escape reaction.

The herd instinct

According to scientists, however, the most underestimated factor in human behavior is social norms. "We orient ourselves very much by how other people behave around us," says Grothmann. “A consumption-oriented, CO2-intensive lifestyle is still the norm. This serves as a justification for many: Why should I forego taking a long-distance vacation when everyone around me continues to do so? "

The environmental psychologist Immo Fritsche from the University of Leipzig observes that a threat like climate change increases the importance of social norms even more. “When people feel personally helpless in highly threatened situations, then collective affiliations become more important,” he says. That means: They are more oriented towards their group. His research shows that people who had previously thought about climate change became more intolerant of social deviations in groups and were willing to punish violations of social norms more strongly.

He made an experiment: the subjects were told that a radical action group was taking action against a sexist professor. In the case of some of the test persons, it was said that the majority of the students found the action good. The other part of the subjects learned that the majority of the students refused. “Those who had previously thought about climate change tended to agree with the majority,” reports Fritsche. People followed their own group more closely in threatening situations. That in turn means: “The left are getting left and the right are getting right,” says Fritsche. The threat posed by climate change is therefore leading to greater polarization in society.

What to do?

From Grothmann's point of view, in order to get people to behave in a climate-protective manner, it is extremely important that worrying climate prognoses are always presented with solutions at the same time. "Alarmism and sensationalism are often anything but productive because they lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and not to act," he says. The greater the imbalance between the perceived risk and the perceived options for action, the more likely defensive reactions such as denial or pushing away. According to Grothmann, the fact that some people develop a real “fear of the climate” can be related to the fact that the risks are perceived as overpowering, their own options for action are severely limited and the politicians are perceived as unwilling or incapable.

According to scientists, the key to getting people to act is to change social norms - precisely because people like to orientate themselves towards others. However, it is of no use if the majority is in favor of climate protection but does little. Politicians can intervene here by promoting environmentally friendly behavior or passing laws. The infrastructure has to change in such a way that it is easy to protect the climate - for example, there are night trains to the south as an alternative to air travel. Also important are role models like the mayor, who rides his bike everywhere. Fritsche says that it also makes sense if everyone communicates their own climate-friendly behavior to friends - for example, if you have got rid of your car.

It is also crucial that people develop a feeling of “collective effectiveness”. In other words, that they believe that the group to which they belong can effectively contribute something to climate protection. “Many people lack the feeling of being able to change something themselves,” says environmental psychologist Reese. “If I fly less or don't eat meat, I see no consequences. That can be demotivating. "

In light of this, environmental psychologist Fritsche considers the Fridays for Future movement to be very valuable. It creates a social norm and gives a feeling of "collective effectiveness". On the other hand, it shows: “Our youth is affected.” Because young people will feel the consequences of climate change. And in the end this awareness leads more to solidarity than pictures of polar bears, whose livelihoods are melting away - but which are also far away.

News about climate change can worry children too. How should parents deal with it? "If children up to about ten years of age get news of catastrophes on television, then parents should only talk to the child about it if the child asks questions of their own accord," says psychotherapist and trauma expert Christian Lüdke. “The smaller children are, the more they look at their parents' reactions. If the parents remain stable, it's okay for the children too. ”According to Lüdke, parents should keep negative emotional reactions to themselves with children under the age of ten, because otherwise it would make the children insecure.

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