Professor Adam Pearson Discusses How Psychology and Climate Policy Intersect

Climate Action

The name is pretty clear: Behavioral climate policy uses insights from behavioral science and psychology in designing and implementing climate change action. Professor of Psychological Science Adam P­earson is a leading scholar in that new field of study. Pearson edited a special issue of the journal Behavioral Public Policy, which focused on examining how to address the large-scale crisis of climate change and how public policy surrounding it should be crafted and implemented in light of human psychology.

Climate was indeed a very evident crisis during the interview. As Pearson talked, historic wildfires raged along the West Coast, hurricanes were threatening the Gulf states and East Coast, and smoke was thick near his Pasadena home. And just two days prior to this interview, Pearson returned from Napa after helping his partner’s family recover from a fire that had destroyed their farm. Against this backdrop, Pearson discussed considerations policymakers should make, changing public opinion, politics surrounding climate issues and more.

What kinds of things should policymakers be considering regarding climate action?

There are three general areas of focus for us that I think are pertinent both to academics and policymakers, too.

We need to think about how we reduce partisan and other social barriers to policy design and implementation. Most policies are designed and implemented on behalf of other people, so understanding what motivates people to collectively support or oppose a policy, and social forces that can speed or slow policy design and adoption, is key. The second is how can we target consumer behaviors to increase more pro-climate actions and what kinds of policies can help do that? The third idea is thinking locally with a system of decision-making that can help communities come to more fair and effective decisions. So, how can behavioral science help people better understand and prioritize problems that most affect them, and help communities that are often left out of the decision-making process have a say?

In our lab, we tend to think of not one but two climates—our physical climate and a given social climate. And unlike many slow-moving physical systems, our social climate is something we have remarkable control over. In our lab, we think the key to understanding and addressing environmental problems like climate change is to better understand how these two systems interact.

How does the U.S. compare to other countries when it comes to perceptions of climate change?

Traditionally, the United States has been, at least in the last two decades, a highly politically polarized environment when it comes to climate change and climate policy and there are a lot of reasons that's the case. But even within the United States, while it's true that it's a polarized topic, that polarization is less extreme than we might think. There's actually a lot more consensus even across the political spectrum about, say, whether climate change is occurring, which a majority of Americans believe is the case, and whether major steps should be taken to address it—most believe so—and a higher consensus than what we might think based on the news.

In most other countries, at least among the general public, it's not such a politically charged issue. The question of whether we think it's impacting us personally is where we tend to see some distance psychologically, and whether we think climate change is something that is likely to occur within our lifetimes or is currently impacting our own communities. And historically, Americans have viewed climate change as something happening to other nations. But that is also changing.

Areas along the whole West Coast are burning, and you mentioned that there's more consensus among the American public regarding climate change. Do you think this will shift the political climate as well?

I think that's the hope. It speaks to an opportunity for civic activism.

People often assume that if you present people, including politicians, with enough facts about the seriousness of the problem, then they’ll feel compelled to act. But we know that often doesn't work. But there are other things that people can do as a starting point for conversation, like emphasizing shared values, particularly within a local community, that may not even be about climate change per se. Those might be about concerns with food security and jobs in a farming community, or how to protect the most vulnerable, if it's a faith-based community, or protecting roads and critical infrastructure in a military community. Many military bases are at sea level.

Shared values establish common ground, and we can encourage people to listen when we speak to what’s personal, impacts at home and changes that we are seeing in our own lives.

We know that social norms are another really powerful vehicle through which social influence and persuasion occurs and talking with others can help communicate those norms. This goes for the types of policies we want to see in our community, like investments in renewable energy, or more climate science education in our schools. We can also share concerns about the legacy of a community, how it's going to withstand catastrophic wildfires on the West Coast or yet another series of hurricanes. Those are more immediate, local and personal ways of communicating about a problem that research suggests may be more effective when advocating for preferred policies than fact-based appeals, and to the extent that groups can use these modes of communication strategically when speaking to politicians and community leaders then they may be more persuasive.

Can you talk a little bit more about the social context in which people make consumer decisions? How can we change those norms around behaviors that are unsustainable?

For consumer behavior there's certainly a huge opportunity there. I think it's probably one that many people have some intuitions about but maybe don’t quite appreciate the scale or potential for impact. Just to give you one statistic, human consumption and waste patterns, this is for food and energy and transportation use, and their indirect effects on supply chains, account for about 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

The question is, what kinds of actions matter? And if you were to construct messages or policies, maybe incentive programs to target certain kinds of actions, which ones should you target? We know things like repetitive actions, turning on and off the lights, recycling behavior, those are notoriously poor targets for behavior change because they're really hard to do. You have to be mindful of it every time you do it. It's kind of a pain to do. And really the impact is pretty minimal for the effort that's involved.

A better target, from the perspective of a behavioral scientist, is a one-time action like weatherizing your home, or setting up a new retirement account that includes low carbon investments. You make that decision maybe one time or once a decade or two and it's a gift that keeps on giving. And the scale of impact is much greater especially as more people do that. So there are one-time actions that can be targeted in terms of consumer behavior, but I think psychology also has something important to say about how we might encourage people to engage in more environmentally friendly actions. There’s a thorny problem which is that most environmentally friendly behaviors are not the norm and we know that norms matter. Our perceptions of what others are doing can steer human behavior.

So how do you get people on board with behaviors that aren't yet normative? It might be something big like purchasing a fuel-efficient vehicle or it might be something on the smaller side but still very hard to do, like changing our diet, eating a bit less meat, which we know can also be impactful.

If you suggest that more and more students are deciding to take meatless options—even if only a third of students are doing it, if you think it's something that's trending then you might be more likely to get ahead of the curve and conform. It's called pre-conformity. And in fact, that's what researchers find in field experiments that are discussed in one of the articles in the special issue. These were studies that were done at Stanford. Learning about a norm that might be changing—that more and more students at Stanford are taking meatless options—can change actual purchasing behavior, in this case, the likelihood of purchasing a meatless option at a lunch counter.

Another is what are called “working together” norms. This involves framing appeals in a way that is an open invitation to work with others toward a common goal. It's conveying a community effort. And those type of invitations are potent and especially in a communal environment like a college campus. So those are just two examples of appeals that can sway consumer behavior.

How should policymakers take those kinds of behaviors into account?

Historically, there's been a funny trajectory for behavioral science, which is a catch-all term for scientists who are interested in human behavior. Early on, they had a seat at the proverbial decision-making table. Over time, behavioral scientists for a variety of reasons were missing from that table as climate change became seen as more of a technical problem. If we can just extract CO2 out of the air, then we can fix the problem or just stop emitting CO2 and find some other really clean energy source that's super cheap then we'll fix the problem, so we take human minds out of the equation. And fortunately, now behavioral scientists are coming back into the mix.

People are sitting around a table creating some kind of policy that they then hand to social scientists or psychologists and say sell it, right? That may be one piece of the puzzle, effectively conveying information about a policy to those the policy will impact, and to those who will enact it. But there's also value in having social and behavioral scientists in the room at the beginning of the process to understand local norms and to help bring different stakeholders together to discuss in a more formalized way what might be the priorities and issues that they want addressed in their community. You can do that in haphazard ways or you can do that in a structured way and there are insights from decision scientists and other researchers who study group decision-making that we can draw from. I think there's a lot of room there for thinking about how you structure those conversations in ways that can be more productive and representative of the range of priorities and interests of a local community that can lend legitimacy to the policies themselves, and mobilize supporters in the process.

On the activism side, how can this be applied to climate action?

This gets to a more basic question about what policies we as community members should advocate for. There, we might look to existing policies as a starting point. Nations that have an opt-out policy where organ donation is the default have much higher rates of organ donors, typically upwards of 90% or 95% compliance, where the United States and other nations that have an opt-in policy are typically far lower. This is the principle of default settings. One reason default settings are so powerful is that people are inferring a recommendation from that policy. This is why policy design matters – here the same check box with a different starting assumption. People assume that the default is what others think they should do, and those others can be politicians, stakeholders, or an institution’s leaders. Defaults are a potent behavioral guide – a type of “nudge” in the language of behavioral economics – and can be applied to just about anything, and that's inclusive of climate policies, from carbon offsets baked into the cost of student and faculty travel to low carbon retirement investments and building codes.