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…
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.
The obstacles to progress… there’s a sense that this is a problem for somebody else or some other time… the science can be confusing… humankind’s deep-seated love for the status quo and willingness to defend it… humans can fret about only so many things at once.
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.
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.
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.
Fascinating. Our experience with Front Porch Forum on a variety of topics jibes with this… that is, best pitch tends to be… join your neighbors vs. join because it’s good for you or your community or your wallet or the environment (all true by the way!). And getting the competitive juices flowing appeals to many.