Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie (2010)

Part IV. Emotion and thought

Chapter 16. Some conclusions and some action plans

Some tentative conclusions

• Global warming clearly requires urgent and cooperative action from us all. As Walker and King (2008) wrote, ‘We are all part of the problem, and each of us will need to be part of the solution.’ And we, as consumers, can actually do something significant through our everyday behaviours and choices. Carbon labelling can potentially empower consumers to make a significant difference and it could work well with a significant proportion of the population, perhaps with a little more thought about how the footprint is actually represented. Its efficacy depends critically, of course, on underlying attitude.

• Explicit attitudes to low-carbon-footprint products appear to be very positive. Implicit attitudes (a better predictor of actual behaviour in socially sensitive domains such as sustainability, and a better predictor of behaviour when there is any sort of mental or emotional pressure on the decision-making or when decisions are being made under time pressure) also appear to be very positive in the one sample tested in this book. This gives us some grounds for optimism.

• Nevertheless, there is a significant proportion of ‘green fakers’ out there (the exact proportion to be determined with further research), who explicitly and consciously espouse green attitudes, but whose implicit and unconscious attitude appears to be at odds with their publicly expressed attitude. They may not actually know what their unconscious attitude actually is (after all, it is unconscious!), and they may live an interesting life in which they are puzzled by many of their everyday behaviours, which might seem perennially at odds with the attitudes that they think they hold.

• This clash between their implicit, unconscious attitude and their explicit attitude can potentially be detected through gesture–speech mismatches, where the form and meaning of their unconscious iconic gestures do not match the accompanying talk, in terms of the core ideas being represented by these two channels of communication. This could be very useful for getting below the surface of what people say in interviews or focus groups.

• Carbon labelling is sometimes just about effective communication (no more, no less), to facilitate the behavioural articulation of the underlying implicit attitude through consumer choice. But we need to think carefully about how we represent and communicate this information.

• However, we will also have to work on, and change, both the explicit and implicit attitudes of significant sections of the population.

• For carbon labelling to work, we must make the carbon label psychologically much more salient than it is at present.

• Visual attention is significantly directed to the carbon footprint only on some products. With certain other products there is very little visual attention to the carbon label in the kind of time frame necessary to make a decision in the typical supermarket shopping experience.

• Many more stages of the communicative process for carbon labelling also need to be considered. We have, so far, considered only the most basic step (visual fixation of the carbon label); we need also to consider the interpretation of the label, how it is emotionally processed, how the information is mentally represented and remembered and the impact of this representation on decision-making.

• We can change how people think and feel about global warming. Sections of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth had a big effect on people both emotionally and in terms of how they thought. They felt more motivated to do something about climate change, more able to do something and less likely to think that they had no control over the climate change process after watching some sections of the film. The whole process was almost certainly directed by their strong and significant emotional response to the film. This was, I have to say, a fairly optimistic result.

• So we do now know that with careful thought we can produce a genuine (and measurable) psychological shock to both our emotional system and how we think. But how temporary or enduring this shock is, and how it impacts on implicit attitude (and therefore on many aspects of behaviour), remains to be determined.

• Psychology can provide new insights into the whole process of why (and how) we make changes in our behaviour in response to major issues such as climate change. It may also explain why we often do not.

• Psychology experiments can be painfully slow (and they often throw up as many questions as they answer: see below), but they are necessary as small yet essential building blocks in our creation of knowledge in this important area.

Some action plans

• We need to determine whether implicit or explicit attitudes are better predictors of green consumer behaviour in terms of the purchase of low-carbon-footprint products, and we have immediate plans to use online Implicit Association Tests (IATs) and online explicit attitude measures and relate both of these attitudinal measures to Tesco Clubcard data, as a measure of actual consumer behaviour (Tesco will be funding the research). We should be able to do this with a much larger and much more diverse sample than we have used so far (which will involve sociologists and economists as well, as we all move outside our disciplinary silos).

• It would be really useful to know more about the effects of implicit/explicit attitudinal dissociation on actual consumer behaviour. When there is a clash between the implicit and explicit attitude within a single individual, what impact does this have on their actual consumer choice and on their processing of information about green issues?

• I want to do more research in order to develop gesture– speech mismatches as a possible reliable indicator of implicit/explicit dissociation. Potentially, we could use novel and innovative behavioural measures like this to get beneath the surface of what people say in interviews and focus groups, in order to infer what their unconscious attitude actually is.

• I also want to consider the effects of implicit/explicit dissociation on aspects of cognitive dissonance and link this to people’s responses to persuasive messages about green issues.

• We need to explore the impact of different ways of representing carbon footprint information in the packaging of products on some of the more basic processes of human visual attention (including eye fixation) and to explore the relationship between implicit and explicit attitudes and the direction of visual attention.

• We need to understand more fully the complex relationship between visual attention to carbon footprint information on packaging (using our eye-tracking methodology) and the extraction of the critical information about carbon footprint, and we also need to explore the impact of these processes on actual consumer choice.

• It is important to explore basic visual attentional processes to carbon footprint information when the products are viewed not in isolation (as they were in the research reported in this book) but in the context of other products (as on supermarket shelves).

• We need to explore new ways of changing implicit attitudes using advertising messages of various forms (including, if necessary, using the same kinds of psychological devices that were used to promote such negative behaviours as smoking and alcohol consumption in the decades between the fifties and the eighties!).

• It would be very interesting to learn more about what subliminal ‘primes’ could be used to alter implicit associations towards low-carbon-footprint products.

• We need urgently to move beyond samples of participants based around a university and to explore implicit and explicit attitudes in very different sections of the population (including taxi drivers if necessary!) to see how general the results we have obtained so far actually are. My guess is that there will be many large and significant groups in the population as a whole in which the implicit attitudes to low-carbon-footprint products are not nearly as positive as the ones that we have so far observed (and that is why more of a change in behaviour has, so far, not been observed).

• It is also crucially important to explore implicit and explicit attitudes in countries such as the USA and China. Global warming is after all a global problem, and we need to know more about how both implicit and explicit attitudes to green issues may vary in an international context, and what the impact of such attitudes might be for policy-makers in these various countries (who will have to take the electorate with them).

• I would also like to analyse politicians from different countries talking about the challenges of global warming to see if there is any evidence of dissociation in their own communicational behaviour. For example, are any gesture–speech mismatches present in their talk when they talk about these sorts of green issues? (See, for example, Beattie 2003 for slightly disturbing evidence of gesture–speech mismatches in politicians’ talk, including Tony Blair’s speeches, when they are talking about other hot political topics.) If mismatches are present when they talk about global warming, could this potentially have a big impact on how their ‘urgent’ messages are being received (or not received) by the electorate?

• There is real merit in exploring in much greater detail how emotion directs human behaviour and also how human beings manage to rationalise their actions (perhaps driven primarily by emotional concerns) in a wide variety of domains, including the broad area of sustainability.

• I would also like to consider the role of metaphor in everyday life and the way that it can direct and shape our thinking, and to think more carefully about the development of new metaphors for communicating the concept of ‘global warming’ more effectively to the public at large.

• This should be linked to an exploration of the role of metaphor in persuading people to change their consumer habits.

• I think that we also need to look at the effects of cognitive dissonance on promoting change in this area by the usual method of getting people to espouse green issues when their underlying attitude is at odds with this.

• But also we need to see whether the use of contradictory iconic gestures generated during talk can interfere with this whole process of attitude change (driven by dissonance). This could be an important issue.

• We need to understand much more about the maintenance of everyday habits (and ways of disrupting them), and how habits to do with consumption link in to core aspects of the self and self-identity.

• We need to make people more aware of what some of the psychological obstacles might be in preventing behavioural change in the general area of global warming.

• We need to come up with a range of psychological solutions that recognise the essential complexity of human beings (and the conscious and unconscious components of their minds) but manage to have real practical value. We need answers to some of the questions that I have posed here and countless others(!) and we need solutions that will actually work. Or I am sure that it will be too late.

• In the meantime, until we have some answers, we might need to use the following slightly more direct approach shown in the graphic.

And please just note the particular laughing face of the supermarket manager in the background of the graphic (that slightly cruel, scornful laugh that you can illustrate so well

(Private Eye – August 2008)

Source: www.CartoonStock.com

in cartoons), and the way that he’s looking down on the shoppers with their ‘Wasteful Bastard’ plastic bags. You might not have consciously noticed his expression at first – there is after all so much more going on in the faces of the shoppers in the foreground (the unconscious is a truly wonderful thing) – but my guess is that you probably processed his look unconsciously in the very first few milliseconds of looking at the cartoon, and this may have made the whole thing much funnier (it must have been the supermarket manager’s idea to heap scorn on the offenders this way; he’s certainly enjoying it).

This green faker certainly laughed until he almost cried.