An opinion piece by Hannah Helmke, Co-Founder and CEO of right. based on science
Although people like to think of humans as being rational, paradoxical behaviours are common in our world; a smoking doctor, parents loving their children but not using vaccines which were invented to save their lives, or people who think that owning a gun makes the world a safer place.
One of the most dramatic paradoxes relates to climate change: we tell our children we love them and while doing so, we actively decide to live a life that loads their future with unprecedented tragedy, pain and destruction. We believe in economic growth and prosperity but destroy the life-supporting systems enabling all of this. People can get so uncomfortably entangled in such paradoxes that their only response option is denial.
And while such cases may seem irrational and strange, they are most common to the human psyche. In order to grasp the root causes for why there is so little climate action compared to so much talk on the need for it, it is the human psyche and its development over millions of years, which must be put at the forefront of our quest for answers.
The science about climate change has been clear for many years. If we don’t decouple our economic activities from emissions and if we don’t set up resilient socioeconomic structures, humans may most likely be deprived of everything they worship: peace, wealth, safety and comfort. So far, societies around the globe have not yet found an answer to the worsening conditions on this planet that would comfortably accommodate to our faith in reason.
The science behind reason has also been clear for many years. Abundant studies, such as some work of the French psychologist Julie Mercier, have shown that reason is an evolving trait, which emerged at a time in which humans had to master survival on the African savanna. Seen in this context, reason developed as a means to manage short-term day-to-day priorities and is thus unfitting to human nature when it comes to resolving abstract, data-driven, long-term challenges.
Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that when faced with long-term challenges, people behave totally irrationally. One of the biggest challenges for humans to behave rationally lies in our so-called confirmation bias: people tend to systematically favour information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs by gathering or remembering information selectively. This effect is especially evident in emotionally charged issues, such as climate change as a counterargument to consumption-led lifestyles, fossil-fuelled economies and the belief in endless growth.
It has even been shown that through a rush of dopamine, people experience genuine pleasure when processing information that supports their beliefs. Confirmation bias leads to people interpreting ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position, which explains the rise in attitude polarisation, believe perseverance and other irrational behaviours getting in our way to respond to climate change. Capitalism has strengthened a belief in technology as the silver bullet for all kinds of problems.
Being prone to confirmation bias, the loud and passionate speeches of many economic and political leaders about technology as our saviour may thus not represent true progress but a defence of pre-existing beliefs and attitudes against a truly powerful approach towards climate mitigation, which would — next to green technologies — entail inconvenient truths about drastic behaviour and mindset changes. Counterintuitively, additional information and pontification as the reaction of climate activists exacerbate such a polarisation: many experiments have shown that under the circumstance of confirmation bias, contrary evidence strengthens pre-existing beliefs and as a result, poor decisions are being made.
It is this reflection of reason that leads us to take a step back and consider our current cultural response to climate-related challenges through a new lens: given that reason can’t be equalled with an ability of being rational about climate change, is a sole focus on rational technological solutions to climate change as realistic and adequate as it might seem? And is there a link between our irrational belief in reason and the paradoxes stemming from so little action compared to so much talk on the need for climate action? Such questions trigger a curiosity to take an even deeper dive into the human psyche and its pitfalls when it comes to adequately respond to global warming.
“One of the most dramatic paradoxes relates to climate change: we tell our children we love them and while doing so, we actively decide to live a life that loads their future with unprecedented tragedy, pain and destruction.”
Ancestral forces shape today’s human behaviour
Next to social and cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology offers eye-opening insights. According to evolutionary psychology, five ancestral forces have shaped human perception and behaviour. In his book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, Per Espen Stoknes very clearly shows how those forces have driven the evolution of the human brain in such a significant manner over millions of years that it would be quite naive to think they could be tamed by any younger parts of our brain, such as those responsible for self-reflection or conscious thought.
The first ancestral force is self-interest. Various experiments have shown that in social dilemmas, most people make selfish decisions. The effect is exacerbated when strangers are regarded as opponents. While this is an essential trait for driving one’s genes and protecting the tribe, it could become self-destructive if the western world does not care about the rest of the world being put in severe danger by ongoing and long-term climate change.
The second ancestral force is status. There is no difference between a colourful bird making its nest and performing a passionate dance to attract a sexual partner and a young guy showing off with a roaring car, trying to catch everyone’s eye. Gaining status is still a deeply entrenched priority for the human animal and thus feels so much more urgent to our brain than any long-term threat or reward. As long as status is defined by having more instead of being more, this ancestral force acts as a severe threat to ourselves in a world, in which consumption significantly contributes to fuelling climate change.
Ancestral forces three to five are social imitation, short-termism and risk vividness. Social imitation refers to the important lesson that we human beings learned a very long time ago and which secured our survival: imitating others is the best way to learn efficiently. Our brain is therefore wired to imitate the majority. Imitating makes much sense when it comes to acquiring skills that enable us to survive and thrive in the short-term, which was for a long time the most relevant time-horizon. Once however, a majority behaves in a way that might secure short-term survival but exacerbate long-term risk, imitating others might not be the best strategy to survive in a fossil-fuelled society.
Psychology also sheds light on the background and function of the fourth ancestral force, which is short-termism. Without short-termism, humans would probably have starved when they depended on hunting and gathering. Short-termism made sure that the reward of one’s activities was reaped the same day and that people improved in their skills to hunt and gather. This trait has been so decisive for survival, that evolution has led to an optimal time interval for learning between a stimulus and response in the order of one to two seconds. Understanding that climate change is a severe problem is however achieved by more modern parts of our brain. Those are not necessarily connected with our old mind, which is driven by the ancestral force of short-termism and renders present outcomes as much more important than distant ones.
Last but not least, Stoknes points to risk vividness as an ancestral force, which equipped the human animal for surviving but might turn self-destructive in modern times of climate change. Imagine we would be sensitive to risks that we could not perceive. We would probably go mad and could not differentiate between relevant risks — those which we should really get out of the way from — from risks that are too far-fetched to be relevant. So far, risk vividness has been a great skill for us humans to stay safe. With climate change not having directly shaken us yet, climate risk is perceived as an irrelevant risk by our brain, leading to a lack of adequate behaviour. Once more, a deeply entrenched and reasonable skill could turn against us.
Ancestral forces should not be regarded as a problem per se, though. Rather they should be put into the context of culture and human progress. Since the human brain evolves so slowly, culture has always been a powerful tool for societies to control the undesired consequences of our old mindset in a fast-changing and modern world. Some cultures e.g. rewarding altruistic behaviour with higher status or establish the desired behaviour as a norm so as to guarantee that there is a well-behaving majority, one which people can easily follow.
Also, delaying gratification and thereby not falling victim to the perils of short-termism is a skill that many cultures have nurtured. In the form of fast-reacting means for adapting to new circumstances, cultural solutions to the problems arising from humans being poorly equipped to solve climate change, are therefore a pivotal piece of the puzzle.
All those ancestral forces give a glimpse into how desperately overwhelmed the human psyche is with elaborating an effective answer to global warming. Confirmation bias emerges from a limited capacity of the human brain to process information. Our irrational response to climate-related threats may be a paradox at first sight but should come as a surprise after a closer look. Against this backdrop, paradoxes should be seen as what they are: a symptom of humans being overconfident about themselves, leading to flawed information processing and poor decision making. Such patterns can be found in flammable speeches about technology being the panacea and at the same time rising emissions as a sign of inaction.
Experiments have shown that while fuelling this process with more pontification, a deep elaboration of the actual impact of measures such as climate policy or technological progress is a much more effective way towards meaningful climate action. Respective experiments conclude that through experience, such an elaboration gives us a sense of how much work remains to be done. By this, we can reconsider our desire of having technology served to us a solution on a silver platter and open our minds to holistic solutions which we had ignored before, due to confirmation bias.
This picture paints a wonderful vision for opening the Pandora’s box known as culture and employ it as the powerful means that has enabled us in so many defining moments of humanity to use our human nature for true progress.
Hannah Helmke is the CEO and partner of right. based on science. Her focus on economic activity in a world affected by climate change was the result of combining her disciplines Psychology and International Business.
This article was published in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe to The Beam Magazine to read more.
This piece is also available on our Medium page.