This is the third discussion I’ve had with Adam Corner, psychology researcher at Cardiff University. The first appeared at his blog
and a few days later at Harmless Sky
It got a lot of publicity at Bishop Hill, Judith Curry’s Climate etc, and elsewhere.
The second discussion went up at Barry Wood’s blog
This was partially a peacemaking effort on my part, since Barry had objected strongly to the fact that Adam combines academic research with political activism. I see nothing wrong with this. It’s an interesting subject in itself, which parallels the discussion here, which started with my concerns over government bodies’ use of psychological techniques like “nudging”. Adam usefully points out that there’s more to psychology than this one technique, and makes what I consider an admirable plea for consumers and voters to be treated as rational human beings.
It soon becomes evident that our disagreement is not about the use of psychology, but about the “science itself” i.e. our differing assessment as to whether, in Adam’s words, “climate change poses significant risks to human and natural systems”, and above all, whether “the vast majority” of people accept this.
This is what we disagree about, and there seemed no point in continuing that particular discussion here, since it would involve going over the entire ground of the warmist / sceptic debate.
The fact that we failed to move the debate on to other ground is, I think, interesting in itself. Our agreement or disagreement about the uselfulness or morality of particular psychological techniques, their financement or encouragement by governments, the legitimacy of the science which backs them up – all this becomes irrelevant faced with our fundamental disagreement about the science, or rather (and the distinction is fundamental) about whether or not the science has established that man-made climate change poses certain or probable risks. This debate is not in itself scientific. Is it political, as Ben Pile claims at Climate Resistance? Is it philosophical, to be determined by careful analysis of the meaning of words? Is it a total waste of time, compared to the down-to-earth and wholly political debate about fuel bills, shale gas, and subsidies for wind farms?
I don’t have the answers.
Thanks to Adam for an interesting discussion anyway. He was pleased to feature in a Josh cartoon at Bishop Hill recently, and is looking forward to appearing in Apocalypse Close.
The influence of psychologists on the climate debate has itself become a hot subject of debate. Lord Deben, (the politician formerly known as Gummer) was recently interviewed by the DECC Parliamentary Select Committee, before being appointed chairman of the Committee on Climate Change. In answer to a question from the chair: “Do you think in what the Committee on Climate Change has done so far in its four-year history there is anything that could have been improved?” Lord Deben replied with three recommendations, the second of which included the following: “… I wonder whether we do not have a need for somebody who knows about behavioural science, because increasingly the problem is going to be to help people change behaviour. That is itself a science. There is a great deal of knowledge about that, and I do not think that at the moment any member of the Committee would say that that was their speciality. I would look to see if that could be improved.”
Now just a few weeks ago, a member of the CCC, Lord Krebs, who is a zoologist, had an article which dealt with precisely this question, at
In it he expressed some reticence about the usefulness of psychology in reducing our output of CO2. He said: “… how useful is nudging for tackling society’s hardest problems? It is one thing for marketeers to persuade us to buy the latest gadget, this season’s fashions, or a new beauty product. Here subtle psychological ploys are working alongside our own wish for immediate gratification. It is quite another to persuade us to do things that have a long-term benefits to us, such as losing weight, or a benefit to future generations, such as reducing our environmental footprint. When the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee looked into this last year, it concluded that soft approaches such as nudging are not, on their own, enough […] The behavioural sciences have an important role to play, but our understanding of how to persuade people to change their behaviour is still rudimentary.”
Clearly, if every qango, every government committee, every board of directors, feels it has to have a psychologist on board, this means a tremendous boost for your profession. How do you feel about this, particularly with reference to the climate debate?
Politicians’ interest in influencing people’s behaviour is not a new one, and neither is the idea of understanding and influencing people’s ‘environmental’ behaviour. However, what is new is something called ‘Nudge’, which is a cutesy term for a particular philosophy of behavioural change (or behavioural ‘insights’) that has tagged itself ‘libertarian paternalism’. It is associated with the work of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (check their website for a pretty good idea of what Nudging means http://nudges.org/). As the name suggests, the Nudge approach revolves around introducing small, well-placed behavioural cues into a decision making scenario, and hoping people go with them. A classic example is changing the default for organ donation, so that the automatic assumption is that people do donate. Because people will typically go with whatever the default is, this will probably increase rates of donation. So changing a ‘default’ is considered a ‘nudge’.
Et voila, behaviour change without anything as mucky and hands-on as actually persuading people of the underlying reasons for changing their behaviour: politicians love it because they get to keep a safe distance. Cameron even set up a unit dedicated to the nudge approach, called the Behavioural Insights Team
The Krebs quote you refer to is him saying that if government limits itself to this form of intervention, it will not get very far. However, the ubiquity of the Nudge approach means that it has become synonymous with ‘psychology’ for policy makers, which is emphatically not true. I personally don’t like it, because I think it is a) only really useful for relatively trivial, one-time decisions and b) underhand.
I don’t think people should be nudged or tricked into caring about climate change, I think they should be encouraged to THINK about it, and that government, civil society (and whoever else) should make the case for why behavioural changes is one part of a strategy for decarbonisation. By all means deploy strategies that psychological research suggests are more or less likely to work, but you have to win the argument out in the open if you want meaningful engagement from people with the issue.
So is it a good thing that behavioural science is becoming part of the mix in terms of how the government thinks about engaging people on climate change? Yes – but if it only ever nudges people, it will be wasting our time and theirs.
I agree entirely with you when you say:
“I don’t think people should be nudged or tricked into caring about climate change, I think they should be encouraged to THINK about it.”
I take your point about nudging and psychology not being coterminous. It’s just another of many examples of the specific technique being confused with a more general activity, just as all market research gets labelled “focus groups”, and all psychologists “shrinks”.
Incidentally, there’s a nice article about government nudging this week at
So could I generalise the point and ask: how do you feel about the current moves to bring psychology to bear on the climate debate, given that many sceptics see it as a means of avoiding the real (scientific or political) debate, and even as a step in the direction of 1984? If nudging is the unacceptable face of psychological intervention in the politics of climate change, what’s the acceptable face?
This one’s easy – I’ve got a website full of answers to this question at www.talkingclimate.org!
To me, the only reason that applying psychological research to the societal challenge of decarbonisation could be considered contentious is if you think that ‘society needs decarbonising’ is a controversial statement. For the vast majority of people – including scientists, policy makers, civil society groups, ordinary citizens, whoever – it follows self-evidently from the fact that climate change poses significant risks to human and natural systems. But if you don’t buy into any part of that statement – the human impact or the risks – as climate sceptics (in various ways) do not, then decarbonising society appears to be a spurious political statement based on inadequate evidence, that the shrinks have been wheeled out to reinforce.
I get this. But just because a minority of people feel this way, I don’t think we (climate change communication experts/behavioural psychologists/social scientists interested in this) should all retreat to the safest possible ground, risking not even the slightest hint of a value-laden statement or policy-relevant judgement. In fact, I think there is a moral responsibility to do the opposite.
If we do not, then we face a serious charge: that while we were bickering over distinctions within philosophy of science, and the appropriate role for social science research in society, Rome – if not exactly burning – got a hell of a lot warmer.
I don’t agree with the statement in your first paragraph that: “For the vast majority of people – including scientists, policy makers, civil society groups, ordinary citizens, whoever – [the need to decarbonise] follows self-evidently from the fact that climate change poses significant risks to human and natural systems.” In fact it’s quite evidently false, since there is no “vast majority” of ordinary citizens who believe that “climate change poses significant risks to human and natural systems”, and therefore there can be no vast majority who believe in the need to decarbonise. The hundreds of opinion polls on the subject show there’s a split between sceptics and believers which can reach 70-30% in either direction, depending how the question is framed.
There is no decent evidence I know of for the other groups you mention. True, policy makers from China to British West Hartlepool sign the statements they’re asked to sign by their elders and betters. Does that count as support for your statement? Even the dreadful Doran & Zimmermann paper found 30% of scientists disagreeing with man-made climate change, which is a much weaker proposition than your “significant risks”. As for “civil society groups” – if you mean NGOs financed by DECC and the European Union, you’re probably right. There are other groups who disagree though, including a half a dozen I’ve just formed this evening…
I agree with your third paragraph though. You climate change communications experts have every right not to retreat, but to advance. Indeed it’s your duty to do so. That’s what you’re paid to do. But using what tactics, and what weapons? I agree with you that nudging seems to be a gimmick – what climate scientists call a “trick” i.e. a clever way of presenting something. But if you don’t nudge, what can you do which isn’t already part of the advertiser’s armoury?
I’m all for the use of psychology in marketing, (using the word “psychology” in the popular sense of “low animal cunning”). But what can you possibly offer that the advertisers and market researchers haven’t already been using for years?
Just a really quick reply to this, I’m afraid – I think that rigorous, peer-reviewed, replicable university-based research will always be preferable to focus groups and ‘insights’ from the advertising industry. I also don’t think we can or should be ‘selling’ climate change like we sell physical products – this is a fundamentally different issue. To me, climate change is about the choices we make as a society in response to what we know about physical risks. This means that we should be looking to psychology and the social sciences – not the more superficial knowledge-base of marketing – for answers.
No science is ever completely settled, but based on what I view as credible, compelling and abundant evidence from physical scientists, we know more than enough to know that we need to do ‘something’ (it is difficult to construct a coherent moral framework that advocates doing nothing at all). That ‘something’ is not derivable from science – it is a societal decision. I would very much like to reach a point where much larger numbers of people are engaged in the ‘what shall we do about this’ question, and I feel that the body of knowledge contained in psychology and beyond about how people think, why, what they value, how they respond to information and evidence, who they trust, what factors shape their decision making processes…is extremely relevant and valuable to the challenge of responding to climate change in a proportionate way.