This site uses cookies (small files stored on your computer) to improve your experience...

Blogs - short snappy pieces, often topical, sometimes informal

A psycho-social analysis is needed if we’re to understand how climate change relates to our inner and outer lives.

For many years Star Trek’s Captain Spock strode through the corridors of power. The idea that people are logical, self-interested creatures guided policy-makers in everything from health to climate change. This was known as the theory of ‘rational economic man’. Tell the public the facts, went the argument, and the public will do the sensible thing. Offer the public the information to make rational choices and they’ll choose what is best for them. Except of course the public didn’t. As psychologists have known for years, our choices depend on more than a cool appraisal of the facts.


 The challenge of ‘nudge’, neuroscience and social psychology

More recently Spockism has been challenged. Social psychology and neuroscience have been busy showing how human behavior is more complex than the Spockist account. The new fashion is for ‘behavioural economics’ and ‘nudge theory’. Research shows that we are crowd following creatures who constantly use mental short cuts and feeling cues to act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves. These and other ideas (the messenger is often more important than the message, we often rely in an automaton-like way upon our ‘defaults’, etc.) have become the stock in trade of thinkers like Daniel Kahneman and Paul Slovic. The theories hold out new hopes for persuading or ‘nudging’ the public towards sensible choices. They have also influenced new thinking about human failure to engage with climate change such as George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It.

Should we be relieved? These ideas are certainly a huge improvement on the theory that dominated before. Drawing on the work of Harry Triandis, sophisticated models such as that in Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy now incorporate a whole range of independent and mediating variables. An analysis of attitudes, emotions, social factors, identities, values and habits is woven together to understand how personal and social change is likely to happen. For example, is someone continuing to use their car because they’re attached to its status/they lack information/there’s no reliable bus service/some combination of all of these? Where’s the best point to make an intervention? How can we measure it and see if it’s successful?


What about the unconscious? What about society?

However this is still a rather simple and under-socialised view of humankind. Two things are missing: the unconscious and irrational factors that guide our behaviour and any sense that bigger social systems are involved. An appreciation of unconscious factors could certainly be incorporated into these models, helping us see the driven nature of many habits and their relation to anxiety. For example if someone shops unthinkingly when they have suffered some real or imagined hurt, understanding this may be of more help to them than information about the carbon footprints of the goods they are purchasing. But even when we add this layer of complexity, the approach is still individualistic and psychologistic: behaviour is seen solely as the outcome of a set of prior influences and determinants.

In contrast, the theories of social science pay more attention to the systems of social life that are beyond individual choice and which we inhabit willy-nilly. These theories argue that our actions aren’t just influenced by social norms and economic/political systems: they also reproduce them. In fact the recursive nature of social life means that the whole idea of individual actors each responding individually to a web of external influences is entirely mistaken.
This is the view of Elizabeth Shove who speaks in terms of social practices. Social practices are interconnected sets of norms, conventions, understandings, embodied know-how, states of emotion and arrays of material things. For example, the way we do the laundry is determined by a combination of inputs which range from changing norms about cleanliness to the assumptions of the fashion industry and the decisions of washing machine manufacturers and detergent suppliers. From this perspective, individual behaviour cannot be understood separately from its systemic setting. Rather than focus on changing individual beliefs and behaviours, Shove argues that what is needed is a greater understanding of the processes of systemic change.

Thinking psycho-socially: beyond Spock, ‘nudge’ and social practice

There’s a new danger with the sociological view however. If the system is everything, then people and their personal agency can vanish from the picture. This doesn’t make sense either, so how can we think about climate change and give both their proper weight?

The answer is that we need to think psycho-socially, not just valuing the psychological and societal aspects equally but seeing them as mutually constituting. A psycho-social analysis sees the primary building blocks of society as culture, institutions and people and focuses on the complex interactions between all three.



This changes the kinds of questions we ask, for example:

• How does the system get ‘inside’ the individual – for example, how does the media connect to that       needy part of ourselves which feels entitled to things such as holidays in different parts of the world?

• How does unconscious agency reproduce the system – for example, how does our hungry sense of entitlement disconnect us from thinking about how the product is produced and who produces it?

• What is the effect of phenomena which are not internal or external but both – for example, how are inconvenient truths suppressed by organized systems of denial and illusion in government?

If we believe that the source of the environmental crisis lies as much within us as without us, and that it is inextricably tied up with a subjectivity which does not just reside within the individual, then it follows that change strategies must focus at all three of these levels.

An expanded, fully referenced version of this post can be found here

Paul Hoggett is Chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance and emeritus professor of Social Policy at the University of the West of England