Cognitive Bias Prevents Us from Tackling Climate Change

Melting Sea Ice.jpg

By Andrew Quist

David Wallace-Wells, an editor of New York magazine, summarizes the latest research on climate change in his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. The message is dire: at our current pace of consuming carbon-emitting fuels, within decades large cities in the Middle East and South Asia will become lethally hot in the summer, the West Antarctic ice sheet will melt, threatening coastal cities with rising sea levels, and tens of millions of people—perhaps as many 100 million—will become climate refugees fleeing droughts, flooding, and extreme heat.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Wallace-Wells writes that cognitive biases “distort and distend our perception of a changing climate. These optimistic prejudices, prophylactic biases and emotional reflexes form an entire library of climate delusion.” One of these biases is pseudoinefficacy: people are not willing to take action if the challenge is so large that their efforts seem like “a drop in the bucket.”

To get a sense of how pseudoinefficacy operates, it’s worth examining a study published in 2007 by psychologist Deborah Small and colleagues. Small et al. conducted an experiment where they gave people a picture and a description of a little girl in Africa who was in desperate need of food aid and asked for a donation. A second group was given the picture of the girl but also given statistical information about the millions of others in Africa who were also at risk of starvation. The group of people who were given the statistics donated less than the group who only learned about the little girl. The researchers concluded that people didn’t donate as much when informed of the statistics because they felt any donation they made wouldn’t make an appreciable contribution to solving the overall problem. This is a false feeling of inefficacy—termed pseudoinefficacy—because helping even one person matters.

The same logic applies to actions to combat climate change. We may feel that our individual actions don’t matter because the problem is so large and diffuse. But our actions do matter because they add up. Of course, a challenge like climate change demands a coordinated global response. As citizens, we can collectively marshal political power to ensure climate change is addressed by our governments.

In a recent interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Wallace-Wells was asked “How do you deal with the human tendency to curl up in a ball and walk away from the problem?” His response is both simple and the perfect antidote to feelings of pseudoinefficacy: “[W]e should never, ever stop caring, never give up because it is always possible to make a difference.”

Photograph of melting sea ice by U.S. National Park Service.