Cognitive Biases Can Impact Climate Change Behaviour. Here’s Why

Daniel Walker, (2021, November 4). Cognitive Biases Can Impact Climate Change Behaviour. Here’s Why. Psychreg on Cognitive Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/cognitive-biases-can-impact-climate-change-behaviour/

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As the COP26 commenced in Glasgow this week, the discussion regarding climate change in the UK has ramped up once again. Given that this is no new phenomenon, the psychological aspects that underpin attitude and behaviours toward this global crisis is of interest.

Cognitive biases are the systematic pattern of deviation from rationality in judgement; and it is this individual’s construction of reality, rather than the objective input that can distort reality and may dictate behaviour. Unfortunately, three types of cognitive biases that may hinder our fight against climate change are optimism bias, learned helplessness, and self-serving bias.

Optimism bias is the mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower than is realistic. It is the belief that, ‘It’ll never happen to me,’ and could help explain why although there were indications of tackling this crisis in the 1970s, the situation has only worsened, with consumerism a huge societal norm across the world. This bias also underpins why some people challenge climate change attitudes with the argument that they will have passed away by then, and therefore it won’t matter to them. However, we are at the stage now where although that may be true for some people, their children and grandchildren will certainly experience the biggest decline or recovery in humanity. Perhaps reminding them of this will help combat this attitude.

These attitudes may be a result of learned helplessness, which is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, and therefore do not try, even when opportunities for change become available. Prior to the COP26, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem, despite that being a primary objective for the past 20 years. When people have actively engaged in a behaviour for so long with no evidence of positive change, it is likely that learned helplessness will take hold, and therefore lose faith in tackling climate change, deeming it a ‘losing battle’.

Additionally, there are examples of self-serving bias regarding this area. This is the common habit of a person, or in this case entire countries, taking credit for positive events or outcomes but blaming external factors for negative events. So many will praise themselves for the positive impact they claim to have on the environment and point the finger at other countries for the lack of progress of battling climate change. An example of this would be China crediting themselves for their reforestation policy while pointing the finger at Brazil for high carbon emissions, while Brazil would credit themselves for lower carbon emissions than other countries while having a severe deforestation crisis in the Amazon rainforest. 

Therefore, with it likely that optimism bias, learned helplessness, and self-serving bias negatively impact the progression of managing climate change, it may be that wider knowledge of these cognitive biases are required. In doing so, we may be better placed to control these biases and in-turn finally make meaningful steps towards a globally sustainable future.


Daniel Walker is a PhD researcher and a graduate teaching assistant at Edge Hill University.


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