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 with friends and family. We all know about it. In spite of that, 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.
This is Part 2 of the article, read Part 1 here!
The Bystander Effect: “Others will do it!”
According to Psychology Today, the bystander effect occurs when “the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening” in a critical situation (1). The cognitive bias of “someone else will do it” is prevalent in regards to the ecological crisis. This problem is too complex for a single individual to solve, thus we tend to believe that large-scale organizations - such as environmental non-profits, national governments, and corporations - are more suited to deal with it. As a result, we may ‘transfer’ our responsibility of caring for the environment onto these larger organizations and rely on them to solve the problem while we continue leading the same lifestyle as before.
The bystander effect is believed to occur when there are other people present at a given scene. If you see a pile of plastic litter lying on the street which many people are passing by, you are less likely to pick it up and recycle it. On the other hand, if few or no other people are present, the bystander effect may not occur, and you are more likely to take the necessary environmental action.
If we see countries signing environmental agreements, activists organizing climate events, and companies shifting to sustainable production, then we may become biased to believe that they, the “bystanders” are the ones solving the problem, and, as a result, may refrain from taking action ourselves.
…Which we all have (to some extent). The habit of throwing away plastic packing into the non-recyclable trash can, taking an unnecessary car ride instead of taking public transport or walking, overusing our home’s energy, buying water in a plastic bottle instead of refilling a steel one, or overindulging in meat and dairy, which, according to the University of Oxford, results in twice as many greenhouse gas emissions than vegan food and 50% more than a vegetarian diet. (2) Please don’t feel fazed; I have been guilty of these unsustainable habits, too.
Yet according to a report by the American Psychological Association, “habit is the most important obstacle to pro-environment behavior” and they are “extremely resistant to permanent change.” (3) Habits are so powerful because we do them on autopilot mode and with little conscious thought. Repeating the same actions yields the same outcome, defining not only our personal reality, but also the state of our society (when we do the same things collectively). Habits hold such a solid influence because it is difficult to detach ourselves from them: getting rid of a negative habit requires effort, patience, and exertion. These things require energy, and since energy is scarce, our bodies and mind have been hardwired to conserve it. This predisposes us to disliking energy-consuming tasks, possibly causing us to postpone our habit-changing for later. The cycle of procrastination (a point mentioned in part 1 of this article) begins again.
Do you see how it’s all interconnected?
If we have unsustainable habits, it may be more difficult to shift them to sustainable ones, thus preventing us from taking the necessary actions to help save our environment and planet.
Absence of “bandwagon”
In one study, hotel guests were asked to reuse their towels for environmental purposes. The favor was phrased in three different ways: “Help save the environment,” “Partner with us to help save the environment,” and “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment.” The researchers found that guests were far more likely to reuse towels when they were exposed to the third phrase. (4). Believing that other people are taking steps to save the environment has motivated these hotel guests to do so, too.
If those around you aren’t taking steps to minimize their carbon footprint or switch to more sustainable lifestyles, you are also less likely to take these steps.
Anxiety and fear associated with the ecological crisis
Let’s face it: the ecological picture we hear on the news and read about on the Internet almost always consists of a negative prognosis. Shocking statistics about natural resource depletion and the extinction of plant and animal species is bound to make us anxious. Anxiety and fear associated with climate change may motivate people to take action if it activates our extrinsic motivation system (pushes us to act to prevent a future catastrophe), but anxiety may also cause inaction.
Just like procrastination can be fuelled by uncertainty and fear, being anxious about the future of our planet and the lives of our children and grandchildren may cause us to refrain from immersing ourselves in the problem. Trying to solve a problem means facing it and facing the anxiety that it brings.
Inaction may act as our psychological ‘defense mechanism’ of escapism that numbs our anxiety and fear.
The framing effect
The way information about climate change is presented to the public may also determine whether people will take action or not. According to the “framing effect,” if information is presented from a negative perspective or if it implies a threat, it is less likely to cause positive behavioral changes in people. Conversely, negative information that is presented more positively and with hope can be more influential.
The statement “a clean energy future will save X number of lives” is more likely to motivate us to take action than the statement “we’re going to go extinct due to climate change.” (5). The first phase inspires, while the second phrase threatens.
The fact that the majority of articles and media posts we read about climate change are framed negatively (mostly focus on what we will lose and the catastrophe we may face) rather than positively (on what we can gain from a solution) is likely one of the reasons why the majority of people don’t take action.
By evoking a feeling of hopelessness, we may lose all motivation altogether. This leads us to the next point…
According to the American Psychological Association, hope is “a necessary ingredient for getting through tough times…but also for meeting everyday goals.” (6) Hope motivates us and gives our life meaning. Without hope, we will not act.
The absence of hope in a better scenario may inhibit our extrinsic motivation system. People who are especially sensitive to the negative “framing” of news stories about climate change may experience anxiety and fear, which may rid them of any hope for a better future. As a result, people may start believing that their actions are meaningless and unlikely to change the status quo, thus diminishing extrinsic motivation. Being convinced that a future of ecological collapse, environmental disaster, and mass extinction is inevitable may lead people to continue living their habitual lifestyles without switching to sustainable ways of life. “If there’s no hope, then there’s no reason to take action,” says Susan M Koger, a professor of psychology at Willamette University in Oregon, USA. (7)
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
The sunk cost effect occurs when a person decides to take an action or to continue doing something because they have previously invested unrecoverable resources into it. (8) For example, if you take an academic course and work hard on it for a few months, but then realize that you do not enjoy it, you are likely to still continue pursuing it until it’s complete just because you don’t want your previous efforts to go to waste: you have invested time and energy into this course, which are unrecoverable.
Because our resources are scarce (even resources like willpower, physical energy, and concentration), we are inclined to make the most out of our actions. If we do invest resources, we expect our efforts to be worth it.
Today’s modern world is the product of a centuries’ worth of industrialization, economic advancements, technological innovations, political distress, and even world wars. Despite knowing that industrialisation is what triggered the environmental crisis and contributed to climate change in the first place, some people may prefer to continue living in a world where fossil fuels are used unsustainably and factories emit greenhouse gasses just because humanity has already invested decades into industrialisation. This idea is more of a hypothetical speculation than a truthful fact, but it is still possible that some people may prefer to live in the global status quo because they don’t want to let go of the ways of life that our ancestors labored for.
This may prevent people from fighting for a sustainable society, since sustainability generally does not correlate with industrialization as we know it.
Do any of these thinking patterns apply to you?
The central message of this article is that our mind can be our greatest enemy or our best of friends. When we control our mind, we control our reality.
From our subconscious thinking patterns stem our actions, behaviors, personalities, perceptions of the world, and ultimately, our places in it. Our mind determines whether we contribute to the world’s wellbeing or to its degradation.
The first step to solving any problem - and tackling any psychological pattern - is identifying it. You cannot solve a Rubik’s cube if you don’t know the colors that it possesses and the number of sides it has. You cannot solve a math equation without knowing how to apply the laws of algebra. You cannot change your thinking patterns - and your actions that come as a result - without identifying your psychological biases first. By identifying them, you are learning more about them. With knowledge comes understanding. And with knowledge and understanding, comes an opportunity to produce change.
Our own minds may indeed stop us from taking action. But what sets us, Homo sapiens, apart from other species is our ability to adapt to change in exceptionally effective ways. When we needed transportation, we created the wheel, and subsequently, railroads, automobiles, and airplanes; when we needed equality, we created democracy; when we needed more food, we created the Green Revolution; when we needed interconnectedness, we created telecommunications and Internet services, such as email and social media. And now that we need a more sustainable planet, we can create it.
The biases discussed in this article are psychological - they only exist in our minds. And identifying them as such is, what I believe, the first step to tackling them and diminishing their influence over us. We can overcome them by being conscious of them. By changing our thinking, we can change our behaviors, and collectively contribute to the wellbeing of our beloved planet, Earth.
Bystander Effect | Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bystander-effect.
Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A. et al. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change 125, 179–192 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1
“Psychological Factors Help Explain Slow Reaction to Global Warming, Says APA Task Force.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2009/08/climate-change.
Cialdini, Robert. “Don't Throw in the Towel: Use Social Influence Research.” Association for Psychological Science - APS, 24 Apr. 2005, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/dont-throw-in-the-towel-use-social-influence-research.
“How Brain Biases Prevent Climate Action.” BBC Future, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190304-human-evolution-means-we-can-tackle-climate-change.
Weir, Kirsten. “Mission Impossible.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Oct. 2013, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/10/mission-impossible.
“The Harm from Worrying about Climate Change.” BBC Future, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191010-how-to-beat-anxiety-about-climate-change-and-eco-awareness.
“How Susceptible Are You to the Sunk Cost Fallacy?” Harvard Business Review, 26 July 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/07/how-susceptible-are-you-to-the-sunk-cost-fallacy.
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!