How cognitive biases make us feel numb about the ecological issues?
Neurosciences tell us a lot about human nature. It might even explain human daily harmful conduct regarding environment. For instance, neurosciences help us depict the key drivers of individual inertia when it comes to environmental protection. But an explanation does not constitute an excuse and far from giving a simple alienated image of mankind, the neuroscientific considerations of human behaviour, especially in the case of ecology, could seriously serve the cause. With this aim in mind, this article, referring to Per Espen Stoknes’s works will briefly expose how our human brain is hindered when it has to deal with environmental issues and especially with climate change. In another article titled “How to prevent cognitive biases from making us numb about the ecological issues?” some solutions to fight now presented non-eco-friendly biases will be explored.
How to define a cognitive bias?
A cognitive bias is one of numerous mental schemes that prevent us from using rationality in an analytical way, which contrary to cognitive biases demands an intense and structured reflection that we cannot always have. A cognitive bias could be compared to a mental reflex and to some extent to a kind of instinctive thinking, which may lead to misrepresentations and finally to personal errors of assessment. So far 150 of them were identified.
We have inherited those biases through history in order to make quick and less-energy-consuming decisions in a constantly threatening and also resource-limited environment. Thus, in addition to evolution and selection processes, cognitive biases helped us to efficiently process information and develop some very useful automatisms.
It certainly allowed us to survive through centuries but now some limits are appearing when we are starting to think about complex global issues such as in environmental matters. And we are forced to go back to a more rational and long term thought
Per Espen Stoknes has identified five main incremental mechanisms of our so called psychological inner defense system, that hinder our rationality and involvement in the field of environmental protection, but as we will see in another article they should not be seen as a fate.
The five inner defenses against climate news according to Per Espen Stoknes.
Our brain uses as a first easy excuse the distance criteria, which is due to the fact that we feel profoundly helpless outside of the world we are used to.
It can be a geographical distance “Permafrost in Siberia seems too far from me, I can’t preserve it!” , but also a distance in time “What does the climate apocalypse year 2100 mean to me? At this time I will be dead already!”.
Even if we all know that our ecosystem knows no boarders and is based on a fragile climate balance, it is difficult to conceive that current climate is influenced by emissions accumulated in the past. That is to say, our current emissions will remain in the atmosphere for a period of time ranging from a few decades around 80% of emissions, to several thousand years for the rest.
Today’s localised harsh irregular effects of climate change must absolutely be seen as a global systemic exponential phenomenon and create no illusion about our short-term vulnerability to it. That means we should all take our part of responsibility for it and adapt quickly, regardless of the non-linearity and non-homogeneity of climate disruption.
The future always seems uncertain to us, even when opposed to scientific facts who are easily depicting some frightening certainties about our common human future.
But after 40 long years of scary climate change communication overuse, here comes the doom feeling ! It involves first, fear and then, denial as people get used to this state of emergency that Per Espen Stoknes depicts as “collapse porn” and an “apocalypse fatigue”. In this framework people get desensitized through time, especially those for whom climate change remains an abstraction for now. In this case, problems remain but the collective energy may be damaged from time to time.
Now we can move toward cognitive dissonance, the most common cognitive bias, which always creates a kind of inner discomfort because of the hypocrisy on which it is based. This bias that we all know can be described as a rejection of what we have learned thanks to rational means. Scientific results are apparently not sufficient to our emotional and instrumental brain. As we can daily observe, to avoid considering scientific facts and figures we develop an impressive range of justifications. The most common is the usual comparison with a neighbour “Look at him, I’m eco-friendly in comparison!”. This example works also by naming and shaming “bad” countries or even past generations. Here we see that the absence of reciprocity implies the absence of individual motivation, even throughout time. Without individual motivation there is no collective mass action, which is really sad to note!
Some people go further and use scepticism about climate change as a defense. For example you can often hear “Historically, climate is always changing!” That is true! But today it is no more a question of “changing” but a question of temporality and limit. In which timeframe climate change will happen? How are we planning to adapt without accelerating the process and create always worsening negative externalities?
The scepticism conducts often to denial, the penultimate mechanism. Denial is not a synonym for stupidity or ignorance but much more a state of mind that offer an inner refuge from fear and guilt to each of us. Thanks to denial, even if people appear to be aware of what is going on on earth, they continue to act as if they don’t know anything. This little schizophrenia is very comfortable and often reinforced by peers agreeing not to debate about this kind of tricky topic such as the climate change issue.
The final bias which is the most harsh to fight is the identity factor, often driven by cultural and personal values (political, moral, ethical etc.). Identity factor, by any means, will try to override the facts, even by putting less trust in science, in order to continue to get advantage of the current system in which people always have a certain position to defend.
For example liberals who, at first sight have nothing against climate activists’ ideas can quickly change their mind when it leads to shorten the fundamental liberty in the heart of their ideology. For example, when entrepreneurship is threatened by the introduction of stronger State’s interventions and economy regulation for the planet good.
The real challenge now is to find ways to initiate individual moves leading to collective actions and above all political decisions, and do so, as soon as possible in order to avoid reaching tipping points and some disasters such as the melting of the Greenland icecap that would conduct to dramatic effects as we already know.
To learn more from Per Espen Stoknes read What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015).