Why behavioural science also needs sociologists to address climate behaviours
Psychology needs to work alongside disciplines that show us the wider mechanisms, such as social class, that shape our behaviour
With COP27 fresh in our minds, the time seems right to look again at the debate of how we might persuade people to adopt lower carbon lifestyles. Behavioural scientists will often have a range of approaches that are used for this end, often applied broadly across the population.
But as behavioural science increasingly works with social and market researchers, an understanding is starting to come to the fore of the different considerations that are needed when engaging with different segments of the population. This is arguably something that behavioural scientists need to integrate more effectively in the way they approach problems: psychology’s ‘unit of analysis’ is typically less about broad societal structures and much more about the individual. Compare this to sociology which stratifies society based on a range of different criteria such as wealth, income, education, family background, and power.
Given the ways that societal differences have long been identified to influence attitudes, behaviours and societal outcomes (with the ‘class pay gap’ as a case in point), then surely this needs to be a bigger part of the behavioural scientist’s consideration. Right now, arguably, we are often focused on the more immediate influences on behaviour (our immediate environment for example) and exploring the different psychological mechanisms that explain our behaviour in relation to these. But, surely, we also need to more consistently identify the broader influences on behaviour and understand the psychological mechanisms that are relevant to the way these shape our behaviour.
One such example we can use to illustrate this is socio-economic status, or social class, and its relationship to climate behaviours. We will take a broad-brush approach to this by examining the differences between the wealthy, the professional classes and then those on lower incomes (for analysis of many Western societies at least).
By examining the different position of each of these in relation to sustainability, we can a) understand the different mechanisms at play for each and b) make suggestions for how, as behavioural scientists, we engage with these groups differently to facilitate more positive outcomes.
A report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute indicates that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are responsible for 15 percent of carbon emissions, nearly twice as much as the world’s poorest 50 percent. While there is a great deal of debate about the value of carbon footprints as a tool for changing climate behaviour, this disparity suggests that the psychology of the wealthy deserves closer scrutiny.
This group of people are clearly hard to research, and while there is plenty of debate concerning the psychological mechanisms there is often little evidence to work with. But some areas that might be useful to explore. First, albeit in a different context, Karen Douglas has talked about motivated ignorance and identified three types:
· Epistemic – the desire for an explanation, certainty and simplicity
· Existential – the desire to be safe and secure and have control
· Social – the desire to fit in and feel good about ourselves
It may well be that a maintaining a high-carbon lifestyle is underpinned by social motivations (fitting in with similarly wealthy peers) but in addition there are many ways that feeling safe can have high carbon implications (e.g. driving an SUV).
In terms of the epistemic considerations, then the just world theory, could be relevant. The theory suggests human beings are motivated to believe the world is a fair place – as such holding and maintaining a high carbon lifestyle is something that is merited by this group. Related to this is the notion of ‘exceptionalism’ leading to optimistic visions of the potential to use wealth and technology to find solutions to climate change. It could be all too easy to rationalise current lifestyle choices with the optimistic notion that future fixes are in the pipeline.
The psychology of very high net worth groups therefore clearly deserves greater focus, not least as these are often people in positions of considerable power so their decisions can impact many other people. Alongside this, the highly concentrated nature of this group means that understanding how to engage with them effectively could be very efficient in terms of delivering change.
The professional classes
Turning now to professional classes, this is a very interesting group psychologically because, at least in part, the rise of the knowledge economy had meant that education and credentials are key for defining their qualifications for the dominant occupations of this group. Professor in Geography, Matthew Huber has suggested that their socio-cultural milieu prioritises knowledge in general— keeping up with current affairs, doing your investigations, and making sure your facts are straight.
As such, Huber suggests that debates around climate are often conducted less through political debate and more through the notion that climate change could be solved through a series of technocratic solutions. The climate change debate for the professional classes often prioritises knowledge and a coming-to-consensus on ideas rather than a political debate concerning power and distribution of resources. This slips into climate change becoming attributed to the inaction of the population due to a lack of understanding of the issues or misinformation – and less likely to be attributed to the wider social, economic and power structures that might mitigate action being taken.
Another focus in on reduction of consumption. The relative wealth nature of this group will mean they typically have high carbon footprints but alongside this they will be acutely aware of the damaging effects of this on the climate. The resulting dissonance or ‘carbon guilt’ means there is a drive for reducing consumption, such as flying less or buying fewer clothes, as viable actions to address climate change.
This then creates calls for ‘de-growth’ involving wider change and restructuring of society so that we all manage on less. While this makes sense for the professional classes who have the means to do this, the calls are in fact often made for broader societal or ‘systems’ change so that this applies more broadly in the population (which as we shall see below is of debateable value.)
The nature of engagement with professional classes may then be to challenge the technocratic nature of the dialogue and to call for a better understanding of the societal structures that have led to these disparities and the implications for carbon footprints. In a way then the prioritisation of knowledge is pushed back on this group, encouraging them to engage in a more political debate and explore the political and policy routes to remedy this.
Lower income groups
While the size of this group of the lower income population means it is important one to effect change, arguably, it is the professional classes that are typically setting the media and public policy agenda on climate change. The danger here is that calls for ‘managing on less’ in the interests of climate change will not necessarily find support in this wider group.
This is not because this is a group that is unconcerned, indeed research has found a great deal of concern about climate change in low-income groups. This is despite the “Environmental belief paradox” the surprising tendency to misperceive groups that are the most environmentally concerned and most vulnerable to environmental impacts as least concerned.
The issue, however, is that for this group their living standards have fallen with increasing levels of job insecurity, mounting debt and more challenging access to public services. The levels of stress and insecurity that characterise much of this group means that a ‘scarcity’ mindset creates limited bandwidth to prioritise climate behaviours, with a range of other concerns (e.g. finding employment, shopping for cheap food, managing access to public services) higher in the hierarchy of priorities.
And in the context of calls at COP27 for rich nations to do more in terms of reducing their carbon footprint, the reality is that this falls on deaf ears of the hugely increased population, even within those rich countries, that are finding it difficult to pay their bills.
This is therefore a group which is much less likely to respond to appeals for having less and for de-growth but instead need to be able to see the way that climate behaviours can lead to benefits such as more job security, access to stable housing and affordable energy tariffs. The focus on the negative for this group rather than potential for material gains is unlikely to result in the mass, popular engagement for action.
If we are to use behavioural science as a lens to understand behaviour, we need to make sure that our lens is not always ‘zoomed in’ on the individual and their immediate situation but that we also ‘zoom out,’ so that we can see the wider social, cultural, economic and political environment. When we do this, we can see more clearly how our responses and behaviours are not only the result of our individual psychology but are also socially, economically and historically situated. There is a nuanced balancing act between the individual and these wider ways in which our behaviour is shaped that will inevitably be a source of debate and disagreement.
But disciplines such as ethnography, geography and sociology (and of course social and market research) offer behavioural scientists a great resource to examine what these broader influences are. In turn this allows us to then see more clearly how we need to call on different psychological mechanisms to better understand the behaviours for each group, which in turn guides us towards more effective avenues to engage that are more likely to result in positive outcomes.
Behavioural science does not ignore the wider environment but perhaps there is a tendency not to examine the interplay between the societal and individual closely enough. We call for more debate on ways the discipline can better deal with more than one framing at a time, a step surely needed to address the complex and daunting challenges that we are now facing.
We apply a questioning eye to the big issues of the day - as well to as our own discipline - with a regular feed of articles direct to your inbox