Part of the success of Ireland’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis so far (it’s going to be a long game) has been due to government and public acceptance of scientific advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).
The field of behavioural science has been studying how humans work for decades and Irish experts have been working on the NPHET’s Behavioural Change Subgroup to apply behavioural change science to steering the Irish public through the Covid-19 crisis.
So, as we start to reopen and rebuild, can we use the science of behavioural change to help us embrace a greener way?
Global warming, climate change, call it what you want, scientists have been warning about it for decades and yet here we are facing the biggest task of a generation — decoupling economic activity from carbon emissions — whilst in the midst of a global pandemic.
Why we didn’t change our ways two decades ago? Why are humans so slow to act on climate change?
First, there is the psychological process of learning. In order to change your behaviour, something has to grab your attention and change your mind.
Humans are brilliant at doing this for things that are salient and immediate (if there is a tiger in the vicinity we will run and hide), but not good for things that are distant and abstract (like sea level rise in 30 years’ time). So climate change struggles to generate behaviour change until its effects become apparent.
Climate change has definitely moved up the public agenda, possibly because the effects of it are actually becoming apparent and the youth climate strike movement made the problem seem less distant.
Second, there is the science communication side of things. People are arguably bombarded with “important” advice from scientists about how they “should” live their lives, much of which turns out to be important, but some of it not. Consequently, a degree of scepticism and slowness to accept bad news is not that surprising.
Scientists are afflicted with the “curse of knowledge” — it’s really hard for them to understand the perspective of an ordinary citizen who doesn’t know anything about how carbon emissions work or what’s involved to avert a climate catastrophe.
Behavioural scientists are starting to investigate whether, if people understood the basic mechanics of climate change better, they would change their behaviour.
The assumption that if people “just knew”, then they would change their behaviour, is a big one (we’re continually told that eating junk foods and drinking alcohol excessively is bad for our health, yet we continue), but existing behavioural research in relation to banking shows that fully understanding the scale of the task does motivate people to act.
For example, when it comes to mortgages, people can save themselves thousands of euros over the course of their loan if they switch their mortgages to different banks from time to time. Most people don’t bother because they think it’s too much hassle, but the people who research a financial product, have a big checklist of paperwork to be submitted, and fully understand the hassle involved, are the most likely to switch because they are confident in their own steps.
Know-how and certainty helps them laugh all the way to the bank.
Even with knowledge, it’s hard to break the norm. Last year, I filmed with a taxi driver for an RTÉ documentary about life in 2050. Thomas wanted to buy a new taxi and researched getting an electric car. He did the sums, found out about the grants, looked at charging points, range, etc. Everything pointed to getting an electric car. Yet he hesitated.
His perception was that an electric taxi was so out the norm, he was afraid of taking the step. He really agonised over the decision because he didn’t want to be made a mug.
It took him six months to come to the decision (despite concluding it was a no-brainer from the outset) and now he is delighted, saving €150 a week on fuel.
Stepping outside the norm (in this case, buying an electric rather than diesel car) can be hard. Humans are social species and we rely on each other and our communities to succeed, so it’s hard to take a step that isn’t in line with everyone around you.
When we are challenged on our beliefs, sometimes it feels safer to maintain the norm, to deny and duck rather than change — despite the evidence in front of you.
But norms are changing.
In the past, lots of climate change messaging came from the green movement, which was perceived as “alternative”. That’s changing — climate change really is a mainstream problem.
It’s also being framed as a moral problem (thanks, Pope Francis!) and many people want to make a positive change but don’t know where to start.
Political and community leadership is needed to help people step out of their comfort zones, and to help people who put their hands up to say ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t know how to change’ or to ask for guidance as to what is the best action to take.
Covid-19 has shown that humans can make drastic changes quickly when the need is urgent and pressing.
I really hope we can keep the momentum of change going to tackle the urgent and pressing need for climate action.