The Dragons, Misers and Game Changers in Our Minds

Dr. Elise Amel explains our behavioral barriers to acting on climate change

August 29, 2017

Change is hard, particularly for humans and particularly when it comes to our relationship with the natural world. Dr. Elise Amel, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, has made it her mission to understand and challenge human inaction toward big environmental problems like climate change. In a new review published in Science, Amel and her coauthors apply their study of psychology to explain the forces that keep us resistant to changing our behavior and explore the role individuals can play to alter the status quo.

According to Amel, we’ve set up our own psychological barriers to fighting climate change. Sometimes called “dragons of inaction,” they have roots across time, from our primitive years to our industrialized ones. A few of the big “dragons” Amel points out:

We don’t sense the urgency of climate change. 
Because we once lived in a time where we responded to sudden and obvious threats to our survival — think, wildcats and infected wounds — today’s environmental problems and their longer timelines don’t stimulate any of our senses to create urgency. “Without a tangible sensory signal and attendant emotional jolt, these problems feel psychologically distant and do little to move us to action,” she writes.

We’re sticking to unsustainable social norms.
Long ago, humans learned that acceptance by a group meant access to shared resources and protection. Amel says that we are still strongly influenced by the need for social connection, and many of us may hesitate in taking up unusual or potentially embarrassing (but sustainable) new habits like composting or carpooling in the face of scrutiny by others.

As we’ve industrialized, we’ve become disconnected with nature.
In many ways, humans have progressed from surviving to thriving, and life in general has become much easier because of modernization and technological innovation. In the process, Amel argues, our kinship with nature has eroded, particularly among developed countries. “Experiencing the self as separate from nature is the foundation of humanity’s damaged relationship to planetary resources,” she writes. “Simply put, humans don’t protect what they don’t know and value.”

Amel believes we can still change our personal habits, and even more importantly, galvanize and join collective action to disrupt the huge “inefficient and wasteful industrial systems and processes through which individuals meet their needs.” It’ll take collective action driven by “transformational individuals” — people willing to step outside existing social norms that keep us thinking and acting unsustainably — and a renewed feeling of connection to nature. Rare caught up with Dr. Amel to learn more about her study, its findings, and the importance of understanding behavior in order to change it.

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Rare: I know a lot of people, including myself before reading this study, haven’t thought much at all about the “dragons” of their own inaction, which keep them from taking more significant steps to act sustainably. Why is it important for people to step back and think about the forces that might be shaping their behavior, as deeply as you have in your study?

Dr. Amel: I think it’s important to think about our human limitations, because if we know about them then we have a better chance of overriding them. For instance, so much of what we do is based on automatic habits. Habits are developed out of associations between human environment and a behavior that is effective. So if you get cued and you behave and it’s a good thing, you’ll repeat that behavior. That happens a couple of times and suddenly you don’t even know the cue is there, but you respond automatically anyway.

It’s kind of difficult to manage your way out of habitual behavior, but it’s not impossible. Unfortunately, right now, behaving in an ecologically compatible way requires conscious intentions and deliberate actions, and those things are the antithesis of habitual, automatic behavior. The underlying challenge is that we tend to want to reserve our effortful thinking for emergencies — some researchers have actually called us “cognitive misers.” We like to save up our energy for the most important things, relying a lot on these automatic habits. Whenever we have to look harder for an alternative or investigate a choice we want to make, it quickly becomes overwhelming. When you know: hey, 50 percent of my behavior is automatic and I have to actually change the cues, or somehow alert myself with a prompt or reminder at the place where I’m cued into these automatic behaviors — that’s really going to be the way we can get rid of them. I guess that’s a long way of saying knowing our limitations allows us to do an end run around them.


Rare: With these limitations out in the open, is it about overcoming our tendencies — like sticking to group norms — or do we also tap into them to catalyze change?

Dr. Amel: It depends. For instance, with habits, you do have to do an end run around old habits. But in the end, once you build new habits, they’ve got the same value, but in a sustainable direction. So it’s both. You have to arrest the old behavior, but then use the very same tendencies we have, aimed in a different direction.


Simply paying attention to the world around you goes a long way in terms of better understanding. In contrast, most of us aren’t paying attention, and we don’t perceive any logical consequences for our behavior.

Dr. Elise Amel, Professor of psychology


Rare: In your study, you make a really interesting point about the destructive effect of people seeing themselves as separate from nature: humans are “so disconnected from the natural systems they depend on that they do not know what they do not know.” Tell me more about that notion – just how disconnected are most of us?

Dr. Amel: In Western industrialized cultures, we really don’t spend time surviving in the wild, let alone in nature, on our own. So that doesn’t allow us to understand our dependence on it. If we had to figure out where we were through the sun and the stars, we would have a different sense of interdependence with it. Also, just through hundreds of years of philosophical development, our worldviews tends to inspire us to think we’re separate from and even better than the rest of nature. For instance, if you think about the Western movement across the United States, the thought was: you’re out there working for it, you get it. Now, there’s really no place to go, but we’re still extracting at this crazy rate. The old worldviews were effective because there was plenty of stuff and few people. Our worldview hasn’t caught up with the environmental realities that we’re now facing. Our way of thinking about how valuable a human is versus how valuable other parts of nature — such as a parrot — are has really deep roots. We don’t even know that those roots are there. That’s the thing about worldviews, there’s this understanding that we have about how the world works and it develops over time and experience. Anybody who has traveled to a different culture has figured out that worldviews differ; but, if you’ve only been in your own town, it’s not very visceral that you’ve got a worldview that’s unique to where you are.

I think those two things are big contributors to how we’ve lost our deep, dynamic understanding of how nature works. I would guess that most people living in Western industrialized culture don’t even realize — other than reading history books — that we actually were deeply embedded in nature for most of human history. You can read about those things, but they’re really hard to wrap your head around. I don’t think we really even realize that we’ve lost something.

Simply paying attention to the world around you goes a long way in terms of better understanding. In contrast, most of us aren’t paying attention, and we don’t perceive any logical consequences for our behavior. The convenience that we cherish means that we don’t know where our food comes from, or our clothes, or other material goods. We don’t know what’s required to make them, what they’re made out of, or what happens to them when they’re thrown away; it’s really hard to make good, sustainable choices under these conditions.


Rare: How can we bring that connection back?

Dr. Amel: In the short run, I think we can learn it. We can learn it in schools, in workshops, in seminars. I’ve taught about the modern industrialized worldview versus the ecologically-grounded worldview in my classes for almost a decade, and my students use the language of those ecological principles throughout class. When we talk about circular systems, our interconnectedness, unintended consequences, or limits to regeneration, they actually start seeing problems differently. They are better able to evaluate the quality of potential solutions, and whether the solutions speak to those ecological principles or not. I think it’s a highly learnable set of information, and teaching kids ecology is going to be part of that. But even when adults suddenly understand how they’ve seen the world in linear terms, it’s like this face palm moment — “Ahh! I see what the problem is!”

It’s impossible for any one person to keep up with all of the environmental crises, how they’re dynamically changing, all the possible solutions, and how those are changing. You wouldn’t be able to do your actual job if you had to learn and keep track of all of those things. So, understanding some very basic principles can help you ask the appropriate questions at the time they need to be asked.


worldview chart


Rare: You also mention depicting information about the environment in a way that people can understand and get excited about.

Dr. Amel: Exactly, using senses. In my classes, we play all kinds of games. There’s a systems game that helps us understand how we’re connected to other things and how when we change one thing, stuff on the other side of the system is impacted. There’s a fun game you can do using goldfish to demonstrate the tragedy of the commons — when people start off without rules about how much they can take, the system collapses. They learn that there are a couple of different tools that they can use, like transparency and community-building, that can help them work with each other to have a sustainable system. So, definitely, using all of the senses is important.


Rare: Your review describes the concept of discussing climate change using “local” framing, which is fascinating. You mention the possible ancient roots behind the lack of urgency that people feel toward climate change and other environmental problems, and if I have it right, you describe how framing messaging at the local level can up the urgency. Can you tell me more about that?

Dr. Amel: In terms of whether it feels urgent, we’re sort of wired to look for change. If you notice how you get sensitized to sounds or smells or flashes of light, at first those things are really distracting, but after a while, they’re the status quo and your body stops paying attention to them. That whole principle of being attentive to change was really critical because we had to look for predators, but something like climate change happens slowly. We don’t have a lot of direct cues. The impacts seem to be far away to people and places we aren’t really familiar with. So, they just don’t reach the same echelon of importance as the things that are in our lives every day, grabbing our attention, like the piece of mail that says your payment is due on something when you’re struggling paycheck to paycheck. That is going to grab all of your attention. Because climate change is not an obvious crisis and it’s not physically detectable, our senses aren’t tracking. It doesn’t even get on the radar.

That’s why it’s important to connect people to what’s changing in their own lives. For instance, trout fishermen are really concerned about climate change; the trout like cold water and when the water is not cold, there are no trout — that directly impacts fishers. Or, if you’re out in Colorado or northern Minnesota and you see brown trees in the summer, you think, “what the heck?” You make the connection that the beetle that usually dies off in cold winters is not dying off because the winters aren’t cold enough. Suddenly, people have their lifestyles threatened and it’s important to them.

Discussing climate change has to do with finding those local connections, but it also has to do with framing. You have to know your audience. If you’re talking about the polar bear, that’s great — it’s a very charismatic animal, so kids respond that kind of thing. But when you’re an adult, you think, “Do I feed my family this week, or do I worry about the polar bear?” Even though marketing is really good at this, humans generally don’t believe that they’re swayed by framed information, but they are. If somebody really finds value in their faith, then that’s the important place to talk about the impacts. Or, if they’re really concerned about national security, that’s where the framing comes in. You have to know what’s valuable to people.


Rare: And climate change seems to have ripple effects on just about everything that people care about.

Dr. Amel: Exactly, and people say “oh, well framing is really lying!” Well no, it’s just pulling out pieces of factual information to make them more salient.


Rare: Your summary also mentions how strongly humans are influenced by social norms — some may back away from more sustainable steps like composting or trading in a gas-guzzling car when they think of possible scrutiny by their peers. How important is it to flip the social norms to make sustainable behavior attractive? What are some of the best ways to transform norms?

Dr. Amel: We used to survive in small clusters. If we were ostracized, that would threaten our ability to survive. People who did survive were the ones who stayed in the groups. Genetically, we seem to be predisposed to want to be part of groups, and so we do whatever we can to avoid potential rejection. That’s really the source of our conformity.

There are definitely types of people who can facilitate the transformation of norms. People with power. And people have different sources of power. Some people are really well-liked, and others want to be like them. Generally speaking, people with expertise — at least until the latest election cycle — are given power. For example, if you think about the process of adopting new technology, there are some trusted people who have a reputation for being able to see good ideas in advance; they develop the power to influence. People have different kinds of power, but they’re people that model a new behavior others will follow. Part of the deal is finding what’s currently invisible, and making sure that it’s visible, so that these powerful people can model and show others. For instance, badges and signs that say “I compost” or “I carpool,” are symbols for things that are not always easy for people to see.

Frankly, there are a lot of tools in organizations for this transformation, such as explicit communication about group norms. Think about businesses’ orientations: having groups of people communicating with new members about “this is how it works around here” helps them fit in. I don’t know if you remember being a new person at school or a job, but you’ve constantly got that radar of “am I doing this wrong?” or “how do they do it it here?” I remember going to high school with a purse, and nobody else carried a purse. I threw that purse in my locker faster than you can say “haha!” We try to fit in so desperately. In new situations, those are really critical change points. When people are new to a situation, any sort of help in understanding the right way to do something is really soaked up.

Actual policies and consequences can really change behavior quickly, although those sorts of changes aren’t necessarily internalized, so they don’t necessarily last. But if there’s a policy that has a consequence for not abiding by it, people will follow that, as long as the policy and the consequence remain. You don’t want to rely heavily on policies and consequences, but if you need to move a whole bunch of people at once, that’s a good lever.


Part of the deal is finding what’s currently invisible, and making sure that it’s visible, so that these powerful people can model and show others. For instance, badges and signs that say “I compost” or “I carpool,” are symbols for things that are not always easy for people to see.

Dr. Elise Amel, Professor of psychology


Rare: Amid all of the psychological barriers to change, you describe the need for “transformational individuals,” people willing to step outside of the unsustainable norms their society perpetuates to galvanize collective change. A skeptic may say that people either are this courageous type or they aren’t. How do you become a “transformational individual,” even as an ordinary Joe?

Dr. Amel: Transformational leadership may come more naturally to some people than others. Some people are more charismatic and may seem more transformational, but I am a firm believer that any “Joe” can be a transformational leader because most of the qualities can improve with practice and are learnable. You just have to know what they are.

For example, you must build trust and relationships with people where they know you’re on their side, that you’re not going to pull the rug out from under them. You should encourage people to think critically about their own work. Learn not to micro-manage. Display passion. Some people are passionate but not very vocal about it, so it’s about practicing talking about it and displaying what is important. Celebrate other people for what they’re adding.

I think some of these things are on the cultural level and some of them are on the individual behavior level, but with the exception of charisma, practice makes perfect. Even courage. Courage is not magical. It evolves out of somebody believing that what they’re doing has value, what they’re doing is possibly going to change something, what they’re doing is legitimate.


Rare: What actions or behavior change intervention methods have you seen that can make a difference?

Dr. Amel: In terms of effective interventions, sensory experience is pretty powerful. For instance, at the Minnesota State Fair, there are exhibits of actual, sustainable home and yard construction — people can touch them and see themselves actually in the space. Immersion in a sustainable home, neighborhood, city or country can help people see that a sustainable lifestyle can look stylish, can feel comfortable, and may actually save money. It can dispell the assumptions that living sustainably means sacrificing. This is really important – people don’t like sacrificing!

Another example from the State Fair is the bus façade, where people can try putting a bike onto the bike rack. This helps people develop a sense of competence; they don’t have to wonder, “Can I do this?” and, as importantly, “Can I do this without looking foolish?” They can practice putting the bike on and taking it off the rack until they feel comfortable.


Rare: Knowing the obstacles to change that many of us have in our own minds, what gives you hope that people can change?

Dr. Amel: Hope, especially about surviving climate change, is often very hard to conjure. But hope is essential for motivation. Most importantly, I’ve found colleagues with whom I can work to change things in my spheres of influence. That social support is really essential for maintaining hope.

Also, each success gives me strength to carry on! It took me years to see the connection between my role as a professor of psychology and solving environmental crises. But once I figured it out, I saw that I could influence my colleagues, students, university administrators, and hopefully now the general public, through writing. Tangible results give me hope.