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

Part I. Notes on attitude

Chapter 2. Small things can make a difference

In 2008, in a book entitled The Hot Topic, Gabrielle Walker and David King expressed the following important sentiment:

It’s easy to believe that global warming is somebody else’s problem – other people will suffer and other people will come up with the solution. However, this is far from the truth. There’s a clue in the name: ‘global warming’ is a truly global problem. None of us is safe from its effects (although some of us have a better chance of adapting to them). We are all part of the problem, and each of us will need to be part of the solution … Thinking this way presents the human race as one massive blob. But in fact it’s as individuals that we live our lives and make our choices. Every time each of us switches on a light, reaches for something in a supermarket, gets into a car or bus, chooses what clothes to buy or which movie to see, we have all made a difference to the way the economy works. Choices like these have driven the world’s economies ever upwards in the twentieth century. They have also led to spiralling greenhouse gas emissions. Now we will all have to adapt our choices to the new realities of the twenty-first century. (2008:238)

As a psychologist, I find this argument not just persuasive but attractive. It empowers me and my profession. Of course, I agree that it is ‘as individuals that we live our lives and make our choices’, but I also believe that there is a good deal of complex psychology underpinning the actual behaviour of making choices, choosing one product rather than another, or, indeed, choosing whether to buy a product at all, and maybe putting it back on the shelf (sometimes the hardest choice of all for many people). Human beings have all kinds of predispositions to select one thing rather than another based on their underlying attitudes and beliefs, their habits, what they think others might do in the same situation and a host of other factors, some personal, some social; and some specific, others quite general. I wanted to rethink some of these influences and take some less traditional approaches to this whole problem.

One of the less traditional features of this book is the inclusion of me and my own particular predispositions and peculiarities in the analytic equation. Why would I bother to do this? Is it just hopeless vanity or maybe, just maybe, something else? I hope that it is the something else that is driving this, the fact that I see myself as part of the problem, no better nor worse than many others, people out there like me, who should be doing more for the planet, but aren’t. If any of the psychological constructs that I conjure up cannot illuminate me and my particular inertia then they may well fail with others. The inclusion of my own predispositions as an object of study could be both illuminating and perhaps also a little disconcerting, at least to me. Not so much ‘physician heal thyself’, but psychologist take a long hard look at yourself for once, step back and think.

So I start with myself and my own consumer choices, with shopping at the most basic and mundane level, the kind of shopping that I really don’t like (unlike clothes shopping, which I love). Our everyday consumption was killing the planet, we were told, so I wanted to start among that mundane everyday process of people making apparently mindless decisions with hugely significant consequences, according to all the soothsayers. Some of my own research in psychology has focused on the individual and how they read the verbal and nonverbal messages that surround them. So it was no real surprise that I wanted to start my quest here with the decisions individuals make when they wander around supermarkets, making decisions about what to buy and what not to buy on the basis of the marketing messages laid in front of them, without much conscious reflection.

Some products were now appearing with the carbon footprint clearly labelled; the green issue was everywhere, even on the orange juice. So it gave me a chance to see what people thought, what they cared about, how they felt emotionally, and whether deep down inside people really cared about their environment. And I carried out my first experiment on myself, of course: each day for a fortnight I studied the contents of my own carrier bags when I got home from my local Tesco Express for evidence of my own environmental sensitivity. It was a strange sort of experiment, hardly double blind, more than a little biased, for I knew what I wanted to find. Or maybe, in reality, it was a little more open than that. I could after all have surprised myself with my care and sensitivity. But I didn’t. I would tip the goods onto my bed and search for the carbon footprint icons, on the back or the sides or wherever they were hiding on the orange juice or the detergent, hoping that somehow unconsciously and unwittingly I had noted these before my hands, without any measurable reflection, snatched the goods from the shelves. What I found was disappointing in the extreme (the fact that I had so many plastic carrier bags to go through in the first place should have held a clue). But was I alone? And if I wasn’t buying the low-carbon-footprint orange juice, why wasn’t I? And who was? Was any of the whole carbon labelling approach making a difference?

The philosophy behind carbon labelling always seemed logically to me to be a good one. It puts the emphasis on the ordinary consumer and essentially empowers them. The logic runs something like this – climate change is down to consumer excess, so the solution must lie in changes in consumer behaviour. The underlying assumption is that the ordinary consumer is motivated to change and that all they need is the right information to make an informed decision. It all sounds simple enough but there are many assumptions in the reasoning, which any psychologist would be keen to point out. And there were other problems as well. Paul Upham at the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester had been conducting research which had demonstrated that in many ordinary people’s eyes, carbon labelling was still quite controversial (at least in the period 2008–2009, when he was conducting the research). Severe doubts were being expressed in the interviews that he was conducting about how to measure it, and there were even calls from some organisations to delay the introduction of carbon labelling until there was greater consensus on issues of measurement. There was also considerable cynicism about why certain companies were engaging in it, with people assuming that carbon labelling was more to do with selling products than reducing carbon emissions, and there were doubts as to how effective carbon labelling might actually be. One statistic that jumped off one of his original reports was that it would take thirty-two years of a family drinking low-carbon-footprint orange juice to equal the same family of four flying to Malaga once for their holidays.

So, given the current state of knowledge and desire about carbon labelling, why bother with it at all at the present time? One of the most basic answers would be that it increases the salience of environmental sustainability as a purchasing decision and therefore it empowers consumers to do something – even a little. Ramchandani writing in the Guardian in 2006 made the ‘Every little helps’ point (especially ironic given that Tesco was now funding Paul Upham’s research through the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester). Ramchandani wrote: ‘A slogan that was written to articulate value, quality and convenience in a multitude of sectors now shows an astonishing fluency in environmental responsibility … If a few of us do a little – recycling a few carrier bags, say – then every little helps a lot.’

Now the normal way that this slogan is interpreted in the context of sustainability is exactly the way that Ramchandani interpreted it. If we all do a little bit then the sum total of our efforts will mean that a lot is done. But there is another way in which this slogan can be interpreted from a more psychological perspective. Depending on your underlying beliefs, even doing a little might be very important because if you don’t act in accordance with your underlying beliefs this may set up an internal state of discomfort called ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger 1957) within you. People like to avoid being in this state and they will, on occasion, change their underlying beliefs to match the behaviour that they are engaged in. (According to Festinger we have some kind of inner drive to hold all of our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours in harmony and essentially to avoid disharmony or dissonance.) So this means that if the majority of individuals are, in terms of their underlying attitude, very pro-environment then we should allow them to do something, like buying low-carbon-footprint orange or not taking the family to Malaga for a long weekend, or they might well change their underlying attitude. What this line of argument highlights is that underlying belief is critical to the whole process of carbon labelling because it highlights the dangers of not allowing people in their everyday life to do something that they do actually believe in.

I started to put myself into the equation here, as I vowed to. There is always the possibility that I was very pro-green in terms of my underlying values at some point in the not so distant past, but maybe because of my hectic lifestyle (‘everything at the last minute, that’s you,’ my mother would say), I was always having to make last-minute consumer choices (poorly considered, hasty, driven by dubious judgements about ‘value’ rather than anything else), many of which were simply not in accordance with my underlying values. So maybe I had been in a state of cognitive dissonance for some time without really noticing it, and perhaps this uncomfortable nagging little state drove me to change my underlying values so that they now matched my behaviour (less green now, more selfish). It was at least a scenario (but maybe not that plausible: at least, it didn’t feel plausible).

Of course, underlying beliefs are also important in a more fundamental way because they determine what carbon labelling is all about. Is promoting greener consumer choice just about giving information to customers whose underlying attitude is already pro-low carbon or do we actually have to work on changing the attitude as well in order to promote green consumer behaviour?

My psychological journey, therefore, had to start with at least some of these abstract concepts that lie behind behaviour (words like ‘belief’, ‘underlying values’, ‘core attitudes’ – terms that trip off the tongue so easily but may be a little more complex in reality than we ordinarily assume). The obvious one to begin with was the concept of ‘attitude’, one of the central concepts of psychology, indeed one of the pillars of psychology, almost since the very beginning. Writing in 1935 in one of the classic books on social psychology, Gordon Allport stated that ‘The concept of attitude is probably the most distinctive and indispensable concept in contemporary American social psychology. In fact several writers … define social psychology as the scientific study of attitudes’ (emphasis in original). (Allport 1935:784)

Perhaps the single most significant contributor in the evolution of the attitude construct was Allport himself. As one of the founders of social psychology, Allport made a number of significant contributions, including the development of a new sort of theory of personality, a trait theory, which rejected both the psychoanalytic and behavioural approaches to personality description and analysis. Allport was repelled by the way that psychoanalysis dug far too deeply for the root causes of human action, while the latter approach, he thought, just (literally) skimmed the surface and, in his view, did not go nearly deep enough. It was All-port who gave early social psychology much of its distinctive feel, and led it carefully away from where it might have ended up in the endless psychoanalytic depths.

What is fascinating about Allport, the man who has steered social psychology on its course for the past seventy-five years (even after his demise) is that he liked to give us glimpses into his own life (so maybe some aspects of my ‘non-traditional’ approach in this book are not that novel), so that we might understand why he chose one scientific course rather than another. And there is one particular auto-biographical nugget that stands out from all the others. As a student, he tells us, he visited Freud in Vienna, and that one chance visit changed him and changed the future course of psychology. What happened there was basically that dramatic (in a non-dramatic, highly personal sort of way). He liked to tell the story of the encounter as evidence of the psychoanalytic tendency to read too much into everything, without first considering the more obvious and more parsimonious explanation. And this story has been repeated and reproduced many times. Over the years, it has moved away from being a private story of an embarrassing moment in a young man’s life to become something of a parable about psychoanalysis and the emergence of the science of social psychology and its retreat from what Allport himself liked to call ‘psychoanalytic excess’. But the events described were clearly critical in Allport’s development and therefore were critical to the development of the discipline of social psychology.

It begins with Allport’s visit to Austria in 1920. Allport had arranged a meeting with Freud in his office in Vienna. Freud was at the height of his fame, and Allport was then just twenty-two years old, having recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard but nevertheless with the forwardness and confidence, no matter how shaky, to write to the great man to set up the visit. In Allport’s own words: ‘I wrote to Freud announcing that I was in Vienna and implied that no doubt he would be glad to make my acquaintance. I received a kind reply in his own handwriting inviting me to come to his office at a certain time.’ On entering Freud’s office, Allport was greeted with the familiarity of the room, known even then, and an expectant but uncomfortable silence that seemed to open up and engulf them both. Here he was in front of the great man, but he found himself just staring down at the red-patterned Berber rug in the famous inner office, the matted walls painted deep red, the walls laden with pictures of dreams with all their iconic and provocative symbolism, and fragments from antiquity buried deep in the earth for centuries now released like suppressed memories brought back into consciousness, the whole room reeking of decayed cigar smoke. The heady, stale smell of success that almost made Allport choke.

Allport coughed briefly. The bookshelf behind Freud’s desk acted as a reminder to all who entered the room of Freud’s own great intellectual journey, with books by Goethe, Shakespeare, Heine, Multatuli and Anatole France, the dramatists, philosophers and poets, who had recognised the power of the unconscious. Allport noted each of these books in turn: he had never heard of a number of the authors; they were outside his realm. He felt intimidated. And in that silence when he dared to lift his head, he had the opportunity to scrutinise some of the other pictures hanging around the room, including Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx, where Oedipus stands, wearing a traveller’s cloak with a petasos cap hanging over his shoulder, addressing the woman-headed winged lion. Oedipus’ right hand is extended in gesture, open and dynamic. Allport could see the famous couch covered with velvet cushions and a patterned Qashqa’i rug with the three linked octagons symbolising, to some of Freud’s followers at least, the uterus contractions during parturition. But the three linked octagons merely acted as a reminder to Allport of the id, the ego and the superego and the holy trinity of the psyche, and the neat packaging of psychoanalytic ideas into a list of three. A list of three like some cheap advertising slogan that sells all products, ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’, or ‘Coke – delicious, wholesome, thirst quenching’, first coined in 1909, but certainly around in Allport’s time. Allport had noticed that there are always three in the list, always three, when you want to sell big time that is (and ‘wholesome’ indeed!). And Allport noticed the plush green armchair where Freud would sit behind his patients while they engaged in free association. Allport was drawn to the expression of Doctor Charcot in the famous painting by André Brouillet of Doctor Charcot at work at the Salpetrière, with the hysterical female patient in full seizure displayed before the staff and medical students. Freud himself had been a student in the audience many years before and the painting may have reminded him of those happier carefree days or it may have acted as a symbolic reminder of the power of the mesmeric great teacher who had pioneered the use of hypnosis, and the effects he was having on his enchanted and captivated audience and on the frozen, hysterical female patient who was helpless in front of them all, with only the great Doctor Charcot or Freud himself capable of understanding her malady. It made Allport uncomfortable in the extreme; it was all a bit too showy for him; it went against his own implicit beliefs.

In the days before Harvard, Allport had been a shy, studious boy, often teased by his school friends for having just eight toes as a result of a birth defect. He had a veneer now of Harvard sophistication, of the new international academic in the making, but silences like this made him more uncomfortable. It reminded him of who he had been; maybe of who he was. He knew better than most that personality never really changes. He needed to say something, so he thought that he would make an observation, a psychological observation of something that he had just witnessed. He described how he had watched a small boy of about four on the tram car on the way to Freud’s office who was terrified of coming into contact with any dirt. The boy refused to allow a particular man on the tram to sit beside him because he thought that the man was dirty, despite his mother’s cajoling and reassurance. Allport studied the woman in question and noted how neat and tidy she was, and how domineering in her approach to her son. Allport hypothesised that the dirt phobia of the young boy had been picked up from his mother, someone who needed everything neat and tidy and in its correct place. ‘To him [the boy] everything was schmutzig. His mother was a well-starched Hausfrau, so dominant and purposive looking that I thought the cause and effect apparent.’

Freud looked at Allport carefully for the first time, with his ‘kindly therapeutic eyes’, and then asked, ‘And was that little boy you?’ Allport blinked uncomfortably and said nothing, appalled by Freud’s attempt to psychoanalyse him on the spot. Allport himself knew that his observation was driven by the desire to fill the silence, his desire to display to Freud that as a psychologist he, the young man from Harvard, never stopped observing, and his desire to connect with the great man, maybe even his need for belonging through this essential connection. These were all manifest and clear motives, maybe at different levels but all open to the conscious mind, which should be obvious to all. What it was not was any unconscious desire to reveal his own deep-seated uncertainties and anxieties resulting from problems in potty training back in Montezuma, Indiana. Allport tried to change the subject but the damage had been done. ‘I realized that he was accustomed to neurotic defenses and that my manifest motivation (a sort of rude curiosity and youthful ambition) escaped him. For therapeutic progress he would have to cut through my defenses, but it so happened that therapeutic progress was not here an issue’ (Allport 1967:7–8).

Allport later wrote that the ‘experience taught me that depth psychology, for all its merits, may plunge too deep, and that psychologists would do well to give full recognition to manifest motives before probing the unconscious’. This was a clear example, in his mind, of the ‘psychoanalytic excess’ that he liked to detail, although needless to say psychoanalysts ever since have not necessarily been convinced by his argument. Faber, writing in 1970, suggested that Freud got it exactly right, that Allport had ‘practiced a kind of deception in order to work his way into Freud’s office. The deception lay in his implied claim that (1) he genuinely wanted to meet Freud as a human being and as an intellectual rather than as an object, and (2) that he (Allport) himself was worth meeting as a human being and as an “intellectual” ’ (Faber 1970:62). Faber believes that Freud saw through this deception quickly and that by asking Allport whether he was the little boy in the story he was in fact indicating to Allport that he knew that he was a ‘dirty little boy’ and that by putting this question to him, Freud was merely trying to restart the conversation in an honest and straightforward way. Elms (1993) attributed even greater analytic power and clarity of thinking to Freud in this meeting. Allport’s childhood was characterised by ‘plain Protestant piety’ (Allport 1968), with an emphasis on clear religious answers to difficult theological and personal questions and an upbringing in an environment that doubled as a home and as a hospital and that was run by Allport’s physician father. According to Elms, the question had such a marked effect on Allport because he ‘was still carrying within him the super-clean little boy’ brought up in that literal and metaphorical sterile Protestant environment where patients were to be avoided as sources of infection and possible danger.

But Allport was convinced of his own explanation for the event and was determined to do something about this psychoanalytic excess. This meeting encouraged Allport to develop something different, a different sort of approach to the human mind, an approach that stayed with us for some sixty years before anyone really dared challenge it in a systematic way. An approach based around conscious reflection and the power of language to uncover and articulate underlying attitudes, to bring attitudes into the open where they could be studied and analysed objectively and scientifically. This was to characterise the new social psychology that held sway for the next half-century or more and gave us our core methods and techniques in social psychology. This is the armoury that most psychologists who are interested in doing something about climate change necessarily draw on.