The psychology of rolling blackouts
We explore how the psychology of energy blackouts could lead to political polarisation
It has become increasingly apparent for the UK, alongside many other European countries, that there may be power cuts this winter. National Grid’s chief executive John Pettigrew warned UK households to prepare for blackouts between 4pm and 7pm on “really, really cold” weekdays in January and February in the event of reduced gas imports from Europe.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a great deal of concern about this: they are known to result in financial damage, problems for food safety, crime, transport issues and problems caused by increased use of alternative energy sources such as diesel generators (see here, here and here for a review.)
In many ways it is no surprise that this has got a lot of media attention: in the last few decades electricity has gradually integrated itself into the everyday, alongside digitisation. Our lives are dominated by technology tools, from TVs and laptops to home security and transport systems all of which are dependent on electricity supplied from national infrastructures. The absence of this, even for short periods, is likely to have a huge impact on our lives.
Of course it makes sense that people are taking measures to stock up in case of this possibility. And we need to be alert to the notion that was sparked during COVID that this is panic buying: as was found then, in fact it is perfectly reasonable preparation which causes stress on inflexible supply chains.
But these impacts are not only practical: we consider there are a range of psychological implications of rolling blackouts. In South Africa, which is hit by rolling blackouts that can last up to nine hours a day, there have been impacts in mental health. In this case, the blackouts are unpredictable which is hugely disruptive, leading to feelings of hopelessness. And of course, let us not forget that there are swathes of European populations that have de facto energy blackouts by virtue of not being able to afford energy costs.
The wider implications
But there are some wider societal, political themes that behavioural science can help us unpack around this issue. Living in a place that is beset by rolling blackouts perhaps tells us something about the world, or the country we live in (if we see others not experiencing the same problems). According to social identity theory we can understand that being a member of a societal group is important and becomes a part of one’s sense of self. On that basis we seek to define our ‘in-group’ in a positive light, associating it with certain positive attitudes and building this group identity into self-identity; moreover, differences between groups get emphasised resulting in a clear ‘out-group’ that is associated with negative attributes, which further bolsters a positive self-identity.
We can perhaps illustrate this more clearly by referencing a paper by Jill Chinody and Barbra Teater who look at social identity and aging, where group membership is split between the ‘young’ group (in-group) and the ‘old’ group (out-group). Members of the ‘young’ group may often hold negative stereotypes of the ‘old’ group, supported by widespread media coverage reflecting these values.
They suggest that having a dread of looking old supports the negative views of the out-group (old group) as less desirable than the youthful appearance of the in-group (young group). In which case, as people become closer to moving from the in-group to the out-group (from young to old), the impending identity change leads to fear of aging and dread of looking old.
The same mechanisms can be applied to blackouts: many European countries have enjoyed high standards of living supported by stable national infrastructures, in comparison with other countries globally. We can see that ‘in-groups’ are then similar countries defined by these traits whilst ‘out-groups’ are those that do not have the same advantages, often termed ‘developing countries’ or ‘emergent nations.’
On this basis, people could start to fear the identity change of moving from a privileged in-group to one that we previously saw as an out-group, that is those countries that are afflicted with less robust energy infrastructures. Furthermore, if other aspects come into focus, then this possibility gets even closer: political instability and inflation could also be ‘signals’ that we are getting closer to membership of what we previously saw an ‘out-group,’ threating a positive self-identity. Whether this is out-groups based on countries that have struggled with their energy infrastructure or ourselves as individuals that have been unable to afford to use energy to heat their homes or cook meals.
The terror that comes with the threat of identity change
Thinking about blackouts this way moves us to a Social Representation Theory (SRT), initially developed by psychologist Serge Moscovici and used as a way to understand how risks are understood in the Social Amplification of Risk Framework and in work by Helen Joffe. From these perspectives, blackouts are viewed through a construction of understanding that unfolds through social representations and identities that individuals hold. For example, applying this perspective to climate change, Nicholas Smith and Helene Joffe found that people understood impacts of climate change as being vivid but distant through imagery from other parts of the world, allowing people to feel protected from the threat.
This psychological process of dealing with threat is similarly unpacked in another area of work that comes from anthropologist Ernest Becker but was developed by psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. ‘Terror Management Theory’ (TMT) suggests that this ‘dread’ feeling related to this change results in ‘terror’. As such when confronted by situations that create a threat by heightening our sense of mortality, we strive to protect ourselves by bolstering our self-esteem and cultural worldview.
Applying this to aging then just as the young can often view getting older as the prospect of diminishing beauty, health, sensation, and, ultimately, death, then as we get close to this inevitable point we might take steps to protect ourselves with these feeling of ‘terror’, perhaps by avoiding contact with older people or taking steps to make ourselves look and feel young.
And in just the same way we can see the principles of SRT and TMT applying to blackouts: SRT suggests we seek protective mechanisms to reduce the anxiety of the existential threat to our identities that come with power blackouts. TMT would suggest that a defence of our ‘internalized cultural worldview’ is triggered, often relating to a more intense need for a shared cultural values, so protecting ourselves from feelings of terror and dread.
The potential for political tensions
At times this maybe positive, with people pulling together in the face of adversity, as we saw so often during COVID for example.
However, this tendency to draw on cultural values to understand the unknown can also lead to fostering political division: for example, in January 2022, a power outage affected East Berlin leaving around 50,000 houses without power for 16 hours, while temperatures outside were just 3 degrees. The right wing AfD, wrote that we should fear an “increase in such incidents”, implying the cause was the planned transition to green energy, despite being no evidence for this to be the case, attempting to create a clear ‘out-group’ to blame for such a threatening event. There is not one set of cultural values, rather we have different groupings of them that can result in division.
Indeed, this reflects deep differences in cultural values that can exist around energy issues. Andreas Malm has highlighted the way that issue of energy supplies have deep associations with core cultural values, with the far right in the US, Poland and Germany Western countries suggesting that fossil fuels have a ‘material inheritance’ that aligns with a nationalistic way of viewing the world, in contrast to renewable energy which does not ‘reside under any particular soil.’ Clearly in an ideal world the facts would be brought to bear so there would not be this confounding of issue: the challenge is that any facts can quickly get lost in a sea of misinformation, with coverage of past blackouts in Texas and Australia being accused of ‘blackout b*****t.’
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Malm’s cultural analysis, the principles at play do nevertheless help us to understand the very practical implications of looking at the issue of rolling blackouts through a psychological lens.
It is not simply a matter of managing the wellbeing of the population in the face of challenging conditions (as critical as this is) but if we use a framing of social identity and terror management theory then we can anticipate that we may be entering a situation that is highly charged, liable to misinformation and can potentially get rapidly polarised. Being able to anticipate this means that politicians and policy makers can manage the challenges more carefully.
By using behavioural science as a lens on our collective behaviour, we can integrate wider social, cultural and political considerations. This seems more important than ever given we are in an environment where we seem to be encountering a wide range of threats. We are only just starting to understand that the virosphere has many other deadly strains that might significantly harm us, there are concerns about the further escalation of war in Ukraine through nuclear weapons, inflation and the cost of living is leading to unpredictability and precarity.
Behavioural science has shown us already that how we act in a crisis is not simply a matter of panic or rational response, nor of social norms versus individual acts and so on. We can see how to extend the discipline to bring in and help contextualise the work of political & cultural thinkers (such as Malm) and in doing do so offer tools that allow us to better understand forthcoming challenges and identify a range of possible solutions.
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