The Gross Anatomy of Climate Denial

In a recent blogpost on Conservationbytes, CJA Bradshaw laments the fact that despite widespread and higher quality science communication, there is still so much “nonsensical political extremism, religiosity, declining educational standards, scientific denialism, conspiracy theories and evidence-free dogmas.” Bradshaw’s own theory is that that “we have finally entered a phase of compensatory resource competition (human density feedback) where the fight to dominate dwindling resources engenders more evidence-free ideologies.”

There may be some validity to this but to me the more interesting question is how these evidence-free ideologies are engendered. In the past 40 years, psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Dan Ariely and many others have come to the unsurprising realization that despite our prodigious mental capabilities, we are often helpless at making simple rational decisions. Their research has led to the nascent science of behavioural economics; the study how we can come up with ideas like Fermat’s theorem and relativity but still make egregiously stupid decisions when we buy a car, plan for our retirement—or decide how to think about things like climate change. The culprit behind the bad decisions we all make lead to that jerry-rigged, kluge of an organ we call the human brain.

Evolution Has Been Kind To Us—Sometimes!

Though evolution has been kind to us in many ways (opposable thumbs, a neo cortex that eventually came up with the iPhone) it has also survived by evolving a network of circuitry that allows us to bypass the logical side of the brain when needed—like when being charged by a lion. That circuitry helped us survive over the last two million years but is often more suitable to our hunter-gatherer ancestors than it is to us modern humans. In other words, some of the ways that we think or process information was very beneficial when we were hunting on the savannas of Africa, but can hurt us when dealing with the complexities of the modern world; especially wicked problems like climate change.

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Behavioural economists and evolutionary psychologists have dubbed these antiquated processes cognitive biases or thinking traps. There are several of them that are especially germane to how we deal with the spectre of climate change and that is the topic of my research.

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Inconvenient Truths and Comforting Lies

The granddaddy of cognitive biases, and probably the one that subsumes all the others is the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in our mind at the same time and then the ability to use self-justification and rationalizations to rid ourselves of the discomfort created by those conflicting ideas.

I’m very familiar with cognitive dissonance. Despite having a very good knowledge of how much energy I should use to keep within equitable global boundaries, I still seem to log about a 100,000 air miles a year. But hey, it’s for the job… and I need to visit family in the states, and…. Well, you get the point. It’s not a stretch to see why so many people can argue passionately against taking drastic, immediate action for climate change when we have such a powerful self-justification machine influencing every decision we make.

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Caught in the Trap

One of the challenges I have run up against in my research is that there are literally dozens of these biases and thinking traps and they overlap, come in a variety makes and models and often have competing names. But there are a few that stand out as ones that have a particularly large impact on our ability to deal rationally with climate issues and these are the ones I have been focusing on in my research. I’ve picked some common, but hopefully catchy, names for these and they include:

The Framing Trap: Framing is process in which we increase the impact of our communication by linking our messages and recommendations to the audience’s most deeply help beliefs and values. Then we keep repeating these messages so that they’re continually used as a ‘frame of reference’ in future decision making.

The Confirmation Trap: People seek to confirm, not challenge their beliefs.Blog 11

The Loss Aversion Trap: We all like to gain things—but our fear of losing what we already have is much stronger than our desire to gain new things.

The Long Term Risk Trap: We are wired to make decisions that affect us immediately or in the shorter term; not in the future and especially not in generations to come.

The Groupthink Trap: We look to others for social cues on how to think and behave. We are particularly susceptible to this when we are uncertain about something. We also prefer looking at others who share our values when making these decisions.

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The Status Quo Trap: We have a natural tendency to stick to the plan that has worked in the past. New is scary!

The Narrative Trap: We prefer stories to data or facts. In fact it can be argued that stories are the primary way in which we interpret the world around us.

Even a precursory look at these biases reveals that mixing two or three of these together can create a potentially toxic cocktail for anyone who is not already deeply invested in advocating for climate change. These become the doubter’s playbook and more dangerously, become self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. Because of this, inconvenient truths, facts and scientific proof more often than not feed the cancer of misinformation—not kill it.


Another challenge I face in my research is that the majority of writing on these biases and traps is in the context of economics—not climate change. Nevertheless, I don’t think working laterally and drawing the necessary parallels is going to be too tough. When you get right down to it, all the research points to how we make decision, not just spend our money.

And For the Good News—Well, Sort Of

Though this will not be in the scope of my research paper, the good news is that the same biases used to keep people ignorant and misinformed can also be leveraged to influence and persuade people to change their minds. But this is a delicate act and so far many climate communicators have failed miserably to use them in the most effective way. The challenge moving forward will be to find compelling stories to link with people’s most cherished beliefs so that we can get the majority of the human race on board with doing something to seriously mitigate climate change.

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