Updated: Nov 14
It’s no secret that the wellbeing of our planet is threatened by the impending ecological crisis. Wildfires, ocean litter, plastic pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions are just some of the elements to this global issue. In fact, back in 2019, the United Nations famously declared that we have just 11 years left to “prevent irreversible damage from climate change.” (United Nations). In 2022, that means just 8 years.
We hear about the ecological crisis on the news. We read about it through media platforms.
We talk about it. We all know about it. Yet despite this, very few people in the world actually take the necessary actions to help save our planet. What is it that prevents them from doing so? I believe that certain cognitive biases are to blame. This article examines these biases and demonstrates how they may hold us back from taking action to prevent an ecological catastrophe.
I moved to a suburban forest community a few years ago with my family and was shocked at the excessive amounts of plastic litter that lined our streets, roads, and nature trails. Additionally, living closer to the mountains provided a panoramic view of the nearby city, and I witnessed the thick, grey fog - that is air pollution - above it. With obvious signs of ecological distress around me, I couldn’t help but wonder why these issues largely remain unaddressed.
Before examining what prevents us humans from taking action, let’s first examine what motivates us to do things in the first place. Psychologically speaking, there are two main types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation involves taking action either for the sake of a future reward, or to prevent a future negative outcome and/or punishment. For example, if I double-check if my front door is locked before leaving the house, I am taking this action based on extrinsic motivation; I am doing it to prevent a future negative outcome, such as a theft. On the other hand, being intrinsically motivated means taking action for the sake of enjoyment (doing something just because I like the process).
If any of these two types of motivation are absent in a given scenario, then it is likely that we will not take action. Our subconscious mind, as well as our body, is hardwired to preserve energy (because it is scarce and extremely valuable), so from an evolutionary perspective, we invest energy into things that will be truly be meaningful to our survival and the quality of our life (through either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation).
So taking this into account, what prevents us from tackling the ecological crisis?
Lack of instant gratification / immediate, quantifiable result
Taking steps to help save our planet - such as going vegan, minimising plastic use, recycling, and reducing car use - do not yield an easily quantifiable outcome. In other words, it is difficult to measure the change that may result from our actions. There is no immediate gain from these actions, thus we may view our contribution as one-sided. We’ll feel like our actions are useless and meaningless, thus refraining from taking future action. Imagine that you commit to reducing car use and commit to reducing the amount of plastic you purchase; these changes will naturally mean a shift in your lifestyle to some extent - which takes effort - but will you see instant results? Will nature instantly become greener and the oceans cleaner? Unfortunately, they won’t. Our mind, therefore, may view our actions are useless and naturally incline us to refrain from investing the energy, time, and effort to changing our lifestyles,
And this leads us to the next point.
Absence of rewards
Since this issue of climate change and environmentalism is global, immensely complex, and long- term, investing our time and effort into it does not mean that we will instantly be rewarded with a positive outcome.
When no reward is present, the extrinsic motivation system is absent, too, thus impairing our desire to act.
Expecting to receive something in return for one’s efforts is believed to be one of the main reasons why people volunteer (Anderson and Moore, 1978). These “returns” can be in the form of new friends, life experiences, and career advancements to name a few. However, if a person tries to contribute to saving the planet but receives no immediate rewards in return, their motivation to continue investing their time and effort diminishes.
Short term or long term?
According to Mark Artman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, the hardest trade-off for people to make is chasing between short-term and long-term benefits, and action aimed at solving the climate crisis represents this exact trade-off. He believes that people “overvalue benefits in the short term relative to benefits in the long term,” and since many strategies aimed at tackling the ecological crisis are designed to have long-term impact, our minds naturally view it as a ‘less desirable’ type of action, since it lacks instant rewards, causing many people to refrain from taking the necessary actions.
Lack of intrinsic motivation
As mentioned previously, intrinsic motivation propels an individual to take action for the process itself, which he or she enjoys. In regards to the climate / environmental crisis, the majority of the actions needed to prevent it are, for the most part, rather unenjoyable. After all, who likes the process of picking up litter from streets and beaches? Very few people will enjoy spending an extra few dollars on an item that is sustainable (environmentally-friendly items can sometimes be more expensive than standard ones). Therefore, the seemingly ‘unenjoyable’ process itself leads to the absence of intrinsic motivation, thus preventing many people from taking action.
What I like to call the “carpe diem bias.”
…Seizing the present day with little thought to the future. This idea can also be interpreted as the cognitive bias of ‘hyperbolic discounting,’ which is the mind’s “perception that the present is more important than the future.” (King, 2019). The majority of people, therefore, would naturally prefer to invest their time and energy into the present, rather than the indefinite future, and the same applies to actions catered towards preventing the ecological crisis. Since our time and resources are scarce, we are constantly trading one action for another, and investing into the present more than the future (for the sake of instant rewards, for example). This is simply what our mind is naturally inclined to do.
An old friend: procrastination.
Just like the ecological crisis itself, procrastination is something that all of us are familiar with to some extent. Yet procrastination does not exist independently in our minds, as it is almost always a ‘symptom’ or psychological distress, such as low self-esteem, lack of confidence, fear, or perfectionism. Fear associated with climate change and the anxious uncertainty about what it will bring into our lives causes our mind to “numb out” these negative feelings, thus resulting in inaction. When we procrastinate, we are, oftentimes, doing so to escape uncomfortable emotions or feelings. For example, if we are afraid of taking an exam (due to the fear of failure), we might procrastinate on studying for it; it is our mind’s coping strategy to prevent pain and discomfort.
Susan M Koger, a professor of psychology at Willamette University of Oregon, says: “When we’re scared, we can freeze (...) We become paralysed by fear, or just tune out. We use various kinds of defence mechanisms to distract, to deflect, to numb out.” (BBC). And one of these “defence mechanisms” is procrastination - the act of consciously postponing an action to delay stress or worry associated with it, for example.
To “numb out” the anxiety, worry, and fear associated with the climate crisis, many people would prefer to refrain from immersing themselves in it, thus resulting in inaction.
…Not to be confused with procrastination. Despite the fact that these two terms are oftentimes used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Laziness may prevent people from taking the necessary actions to help prevent an ecological crisis because our bodies and minds are biologically hardwired to conserve scarce energy. Taking care of the environment and acting against the climate crisis are things that require careful energy and attention, and if these actions (as mentioned previously) do not carry intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, then very few people will actually take them.
In the modern world, laziness can also be the result of overworking, or ‘burnout’ - when we spend more physical and psychological energy than we gain, thus resulting in a depression-like state of indifference and apathy. With ‘burnout’ on the rise globally as a result of our fast-paced way of life (especially during the ongoing pandemic during which we work from home), more and more people become depleted of energy. They will likely refrain from taking environmental actions, since they don’t have the psychological and physical resources to invest in the first place.
The theory of ego depletion is, somewhat, similar to laziness. It refers to a scenario in which an individual, after being exerted physically or mentally for a prolonged period of time, subsequently loses self-control. Ego depletion draws upon an idea that our mental resources are limited, and that overusing them (decreasing them) can impair self-control. If our mental resources are chronically depleted (as a result of overworking and excessively worrying or being anxious), then we may simply lack the desire (and the ability essentially) to take the actions needed to prevent a climate crisis. Our subconscious mind will push us to generate energy, rather than spend it further, thus instead of participating in an environmental cleanup, we may simply opt to stay at home and watch movies.
No perceived immediate threat
Despite being aware of the existence of the ecological crisis, it is very easy to view it as a distant threat to future generations, rather than an immediate danger to us today. With such a mindset, we will lack extrinsic motivation to take action because we will see no reward (since the problem seems distant) and no reason to take action to prevent future negative outcomes / repercussions. If the climate / environmental crisis does not appear to pose an immediate threat to our health and wellbeing, many people may refrain from taking action.
According to Dr. Matthew Wilburn King, president and chairman of COMMON Foundation, we [humans] “have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats. We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to remember, like terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, like climate change.” (BBC)
In fact, a study found that out of the Italians from two cities who knew about the risk of flooding, only the ones who got information about how flooding may personally impact them indicated that they would take some sort of action against it.
In other words, we are unlikely to take action if there is no pressing necessity to do so and if we are not personally affected by it. If the threat becomes more real and occurs firsthand, then our extrinsic motivation will be activated, pushing us to fight against it for the sake of safety and, ultimately, survival.
Therefore, it is crucial to analyse the ecological crisis realistically and be mindful about the changes that it is already causing to our health and our atmosphere, oceans, and natural habitats. This way, the threat will appear more immediate, rather than distant, thus motivating us to take corresponding action to prevent it.
• “Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, United Nations, https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm.
• Anderson, J. C., & Moore, L. F. (1978). The motivation to volunteer.Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 7(3), 120-129.
• “Why People Aren't Motivated to Address Climate Change.” Harvard Business Review, 9 Sept. 2021, https://hbr.org/2018/10/why-people-arent-motivated-to-address-climatechange. • “How Brain Biases Prevent Climate Action.” BBC Future, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/ future/article/20190304-human-evolution-means-we-can-tackle-climate-change.
• “The Harm from Worrying about Climate Change.” BBC Future, BBC, https:// www.bbc.com/future/article/20191010-how-to-beat-anxiety-about-climate-change-andeco-awareness.
• Vested Interest and Environmental Risk Communication ... https://www.researchgate.net/ publication/ 260412731_Vested_interest_and_environmental_risk_communication_Improving_willing ness_to_cope_with_impeding_disasters.
About the author:
I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!