Break the Wall of Indifference

Psychologist Cameron Brick ’04 studies how we react to problems such as climate change.

March 19, 2021

Global warming constitutes a grave threat, says social psychologist Cameron Brick ’04, but many people do not perceive it as a threat because the human brain evolved over millions of years to respond to problems that are local, experiential, and immediate—whereas climate change is global, invisible, and gradual. In a paper titled “Yawning at the Apocalypse,” Cam and coauthor Sander van der Linden discuss how climate change demonstrates the phenomenon known as the blamelessness of unintentional action. “In the absence of a clear potential villain, there’s nobody to blame except ourselves, and this can trigger a range of defensive biases,” they write. Based on psychological research, they offer several suggestions to overcoming indifference, such as:

  • Reduce the psychological distance between the audience and the problem; highlight the concrete impact on their local surroundings.
  • Connect to their values, not yours; when you’re talking to conservatives, focus on national security, not polar bears.
  • Highlight the villains. “Heroes and villains are powerful tools to capture human imagination—climate change has both.”
  • Avoid pairing desired behavior with unwanted identities—loggers don’t want to be seen as environmentalists. Support advocates across social and political boundaries. “Facts are almost worthless if the audience sees the communicator as part of a rival outgroup.”
  • Emphasize the benefits of action, rather than the costs of inaction. “Nobody likes losing, but most people enjoy winning.”

Cameron has done extensive research in the psychology of climate change and is an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam.

Tags: Alumni, Climate, Sustainability, Environmental