Reaching boiling point - Emotion and thought - Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie

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

Part IV. Emotion and thought

Chapter 15. Reaching boiling point?

I was lounging by a pool in Skokie, a northern suburb of Chicago, writing the final chapters of this book on a chlorine-stained notebook. I had just been to the University of Chicago to present my findings at a seminar in the psychology department on the possible dissociation between implicit and explicit attitudes towards the environment and how this might be reflected in unconscious gestures. I had presented at David McNeill’s lab, the very epicentre of gestural research, and the talk had been received very well. ‘Spectacular,’ said David, ‘absolutely spectacular.’ I was basking in that warm glow of praise that academics so love, and the very warm glow of the Chicago sun. It was 92 degrees, ‘a very warm late spring, abnormally warm’, the locals were telling me (but without any real concern in their voice), and the weathermen and women, all beautifully turned out with the same small regular features that looked almost artificial, were reminding us that there were, after all, precedents for this sort of weather, fifty or maybe sixty years ago, maybe longer. No reason to be alarmed, they said, and everyone seemed to believe them.

The mood by the pool side was happy and contented; the laughter of children rang out in sharp, shrill bursts. The parents slumped on the sunbeds, the bliss of going nowhere and doing nothing, dozing as the sun heated up towards midday. The parents were occasionally startled by the shrillness of the noise of the children, but eventually they even got used to this noise as the day wore on. It is amazing the way that human beings seem to habituate to almost any situation.

So why aren’t we saving the planet? That was the question I posed in the title and I promised to give a psychological perspective on this, to provide some sort of psychological analysis. Well, the single, definitive answer is that there isn’t one, but there is a long list of possible reasons.

First there is the feeling of learned helplessness. Everyone agrees that, no matter what we do at the present time, the planet will heat up. It is all now just a matter of degree (although every single degree has huge and severe consequences for the ecology of our planet). In their book, Walker and King (2008) use the analogy of the warming of the oceans. It takes an ocean quite a while to heat up and they say that exactly the same principle holds for global warming, but with a much longer time frame. So, they tell us, the full effects of global warming won’t be felt for decades or centuries to come. And here we have the second reason all neatly packaged together with the first. No matter what we do, the earth is going to get hotter and we cannot fine-tune our behaviour to minimise the effects of this because the effects will not be known until after we are long gone. This time lag inhibits behavioural change. One lesson that we did learn from the decades when behaviourism dominated psychology was that for behavioural change to occur the consequences (the rewards or the punishments) must follow the critical behaviours immediately, but in the case of global warming we have a delay of centuries to contend with. So how can we expect behaviour change in the present, in the here and now, today?

Presumably, we will only get this if we have a strong anticipatory negative response each time we engage in certain behaviours. Perhaps the most effective mechanism to promote change here will be the most basic of all - Pavlovian or classical conditioning, through the processes and everyday routines of socialisation. Every time a high-carbon choice is made by a child, the parents will say ‘bad’ (in a controlled and conscious way, and maybe even in a contrived way) or their facial expression will knit effortlessly and quickly into a frown (and maybe the fast and unconscious frown is the best response falling immediately onto the behaviour in question), and this negative contingency unconsciously processed and stored will drive the behaviour down. In my very first study in psychology (it was my final-year project as an undergraduate), I demonstrated that human verbal conditioning without conscious awareness was indeed possible. Every time that a participant in my experiment paused for 600 milliseconds or more in a storytelling task a light came on which the experimental participant thought was a response from a computer informing them that their story-telling was poor at that point. But the light was contingent only on silent pauses of a certain duration: nothing more, nothing less. And it was odd watching the participants attempt consciously to adapt their story-telling, to make it better in order to keep this small red light off, but at the same time they started repeating words and syllables and using ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ to fill the silent gaps. I had managed to condition them to use fewer 600-milli-second pauses without their conscious awareness, but in order to find time to plan what they were going to say in their speech, they used more and more filled hesitations, almost stammering to keep that light off. Of course, a number of the participants did notice that the light ‘sometimes’ came on when they weren’t saying anything, but incredibly they assumed that the onset of the light reflected the computer’s judgement of the clause, or sentence, or the idea before the gap. They did not realise that there was no computer evaluating anything, just a light box activated by periods of silence.

Classical conditioning at times might seem like an odd sort of force, but it is a mechanism that can lay down habits and predispositions to act. It just needs a person or a thing, in the case of my light box (plus a plausible story!), to generate the rewards and punishments. So, as we become more aware of climate change the emotional response of the parents to certain consumer choices could easily be passed on to the next generation. Of course, there is probably something of a generational effect working on this already (although in my research the fact that chronological age did not correlate with implicit attitude, but only with explicit attitude, might give you pause to reflect on this). When I was growing up in Belfast nobody had heard of global warming, and that is why, right at the beginning of this book, Laura gave such an emotional response to all of the lights in my office being on, whereas I had shown no emotional response at all. I had been socialised in earlier decades into a different culture: a culture of materialism if not wealth, a culture where the realisation and expression of personal identity and relationships came often and most easily through the possession and exchange of consumer goods and material objects (and not necessarily grand material objects, as I hope I showed with the story of the fort made by my father). This will have to change, somehow.

The third reason is also bound up with the first two and is connected with the language that Walker and King use in the development of their analogy. They had used the metaphor of the oceans’ warming. This may be scientifically appropriate, but in terms of the human psyche it is a dangerous way of thinking. The human mind clings to metaphors to understand the many complexities of the world (see Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Beattie 1988). So it will cling to the oceans’ warming as a way of understanding global warming, but a warm luxuriant ocean to bathe in takes all of the sting out of global warming. It almost sounds idyllic; it reminds me of the Seychelles, Belize, Mauritius (an island that I now know). I have an unconscious desire to be in that ocean off Mauritius right now (but ideally not during a cyclone).

So why aren’t we saving the planet? We are using the wrong images and metaphors to explain to others what is going on, and we are underestimating the power of the mind to retreat into the metaphor and not see beyond it. Why else aren’t we saving the planet? Surely, there are other reasons. We aren’t saving the planet because we are essentially optimists who fundamentally believe in the concept of evolution and deep down believe that human beings can adapt to almost any circumstances. Just look at the huge cultural variation across the world in terms of the environments people can live in, I hear people say, from the Inuit of Alaska to the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Surely human beings can learn to adapt to whatever global warming throws at us. It may not prove that life-threatening; after all, Keatinge et al. (2000) found that in Finland temperatures between 14.3 and 17.3°C minimised the number of heat-related deaths, while in Athens the range was between 22.7 and 25.7°C. In other words, in terms of human mortality we cope best with the temperatures we are used to.

Walker and King warned us in their book that global warming is a truly global problem and, they wrote, ‘there is a clue in the name’, but there are two significant words in that name: ‘global’, which they commented on, and ‘warming’, which they didn’t. Warming sounds good to me; it sounds pleasant, it sounds gradual, it sounds slow enough to allow human adaptation: you warm soup, you warm up someone you love, and you warm your slippers. Warming sounds cosy and homely, it provokes unconscious images that are far removed from the reality that Walker and King are warning us of, it elicits positive images that provoke our sense of optimism. We need something different: words and metaphors that will shock us, as individuals, and others out of our complacency. And, of course, here lies another major problem: is it up to us or up to those mystical hypothetical others to actually do something?

This is a major issue that reverberates at every level from the most personal to the most political. The industrialised nations blame the emergent nations and vice versa, the Americans blame the Chinese (in particular), the Chinese blame the Americans (in particular). Brazil made the Brazilian proposal (during the 1997 Kyoto negotiations) whereby countries should share the burden of emission cuts according to how responsible they were historically for the problem, such that countries like the UK and Germany with their early industrial revolutions would have to bear a larger share of the cuts than their current levels of emissions would justify. But then you just think that this proposal would have so much more valence and weight if it had come from a country that would itself be penalised, rather than a country like Brazil that would do rather well from it. Human beings can choose to compete or cooperate in the environmental domain, and, of course, only cooperation will work, but every time you have a treaty, a proposal or an argument that seems to be dictated by self-interest, this defines the game as essentially one of competition rather than one of cooperation. It sets up a perceptual set through which we interpret all of the incoming elements and information as essentially to do with competition rather than cooperation, and that is exactly what happens here. Human beings love to compete (although ‘love’ might not be the right word here), that is our nature and that is why we evolved; now we need to try to do something different. We cannot solve the climate problem by competing against each other, but we could solve the problem by competing against what previous generations have done. That in many senses needs to be the new competition.

So what hope do we have for the future? I think that there are many optimistic threads. In this short book I have not tried to drill into the polar ice caps to send more warnings about our changing world; rather I have tried to drill down into a comparatively small set (in the hundreds rather than the thousands) of human beings living and working and studying in the UK in 2008 and 2009. So what did I find? I found that in terms of explicit attitudes, the vast majority did say that they cared about our planet (as you would expect), but in terms of the unconscious implicit attitudes that people hold, I discovered that they seem to care even more (and this surprised me). Unconsciously, people seem to know that low carbon is good and high carbon is bad; their unconscious automatic responses tell me that.

How widespread is this phenomenon? We don’t yet know. When I first presented these findings at a conference at the University of Manchester, one very clever woman working in the retail industry said that she would be a good deal more convinced by my results if I had found a sample of a thousand taxi drivers. She was implying, of course, that taxi drivers wouldn’t care in terms of implicit attitude, and maybe not even in terms of explicit attitude (although I just wondered what taxi drivers had ever done to her). But we clearly do need to find out how general these results are. I would suggest that the answer is extremely urgent; we need to know what we are working with in terms of implicit attitude and what the starting point for behaviour change actually is.

I also found that these implicit and explicit attitudes were not correlated across individuals and that there was a degree of dissociation between the two: an individual could be high in one and low in another. This means that there are individuals out there who espouse green attitudes but their implicit unconscious attitudes simply do not correspond to what they say. They say that they are green and that they would always choose low carbon products, and they also say that everyone else would do this as well (‘it is the obvious choice’), but from the dark recesses of their brain, deep down in their unconscious mind, they really don’t believe it.

This is an important finding because we know that implicit attitude is a much better predictor of the kinds of quick, non-reflective, everyday consumer behaviours than explicit attitude. The proportion of individuals who were significantly higher in explicit than implicit attitude in the present sample was in the region of 13%: this figure could, of course, get much higher as other populations are sampled.

The other implication of this aspect of the research is that you cannot base all your conclusions about people’s attitude to the environment on what they actually tell you. They may tell you what they believe (or they may not), but some people, through no fault of their own, have implicit unconscious attitudes that are at odds with what they say. I discovered that when these people are interviewed about their attitudes to the environment they do display behavioural manifestations of this discrepancy between their implicit and explicit attitudes. On occasion (and it is just on occasion), their unconscious attitude is revealed in their unconscious gestures, specifically in the form of gesture- speech mismatches. These mismatches are reminiscent of the slips of the tongue described in detail by Freud over a hundred years previously among the middle- and upper-class inhabitants of Vienna. He also described how the unconscious can break through into actual communicative behaviour. He assumed, at that time, that the communication of thoughts and ideas was only to do with the selection of individual words and their combinations, but we now know, following the pioneering work of David McNeill, that underlying thoughts are realised in speech and unconscious gesture together, at the same time, and the new research described in this book shows that it is the unconscious gestural channel that really gives us a window into the unconscious part of the human mind in action.

So if the results concerning underlying attitudes are relatively optimistic, can we be as optimistic about the likely changes of consumer behaviour? I am not so convinced about this at the present time. Carbon footprint information is now appearing on a number of products and it should be dictating consumer choice, but in my opinion it is fundamentally misconceived. Our detailed analysis (perhaps too detailed from many readers’ point of view!) reveals that people do not attend to this information in the normal time frame of supermarket shopping. The carbon footprint information is a mixture of icon, numerical information and text requiring a certain time to process. But it is the unconscious implicit attitudes that drive supermarket shopping, and we must use an iconic representation that appeals to the unconscious mind, which summarises this carbon footprint information. This, in principle, can be done because we do, of course, know that iconic and metaphoric gestures communicate unconsciously but very effectively (of course they have been developed and shaped over hundreds of thousands of years through evolution). But clearly there must be a better way of getting the carbon footprint information to the unconscious mind.

We have used our eye-tracking methodology to test possible alternative formats of the iconic representation, and we found that when colours were used to display a carbon footprint as high or low, our participants attended to this information significantly more (and significantly more quickly) than when the carbon footprint used grams of carbon to represent the size of the footprint. Table 15.1 shows the different formats used on the labels, the total viewing time in seconds and the rank order and position of each label (there were ten participants, each of whom studied for 10 seconds, so the totals in the table represent the time spent fixating the label out of 100 seconds and are effective percentages).

Table 15.1 Number of seconds for which each label was attended to


Total viewing (seconds)


Red circle



Orange foot



Red foot



Orange circle



Green foot



360 g



Green circle



1500 g



12 g



This simple experiment clearly showed that when you are attempting to connect to the minds of individuals, red (and orange) would seem to be good colours for representing carbon footprints, because, at least, they are noticed. And there is another reason why red labels could prove particularly effective here. According to Andrew Elliot and his colleagues from the University of Rochester, if you want to do well in any sort of test you should avoid a red pencil because red impairs task performance, even with brief exposures, as it leads to avoidance. In one experiment he had participants solve anagrams (e.g. anagram: NIDRK; solution: DRINK). What the experimenters varied in this study was the colour of the participant number on the test. What they found was that when the participants were left to solve anagrams for five minutes when the participant number was written in red they solved less than 4½, whereas when the participant number was written in green or black they solved more than 5½. The researchers then looked at the effects of colour on the subsection of an IQ test (analogy subtest) and at the effects of colour of the cover of the test on performance, and again they found that participants in the red condition performed significantly less well than participants in the green condition or white condition; this was also demonstrated with maths performance. Subsequent EEG measures of brain activity revealed that participants in the red condition showed relatively more right frontal activation than those in the green condition or grey condition. Previous research had demonstrated that right frontal activation is associated with avoidance behaviour, and the researchers linked this to another task they used in which participants had to choose either easy or difficult analogy tests. Those who had been exposed to the colour red were more likely to choose the easy task rather than the difficult task.

The conclusion of these researchers was that the perception of the colour red prior to an achievement task has a negative impact on performance, and that ‘The findings suggest that care must be taken in how red is used in achievement contexts and illustrate how color can act as a subtle environmental cue that has important influences on behavior’ (Elliot, Maier, Moller, Freidman and Meinhardt 2007:154). This all happens well below the level of conscious awareness; red unconsciously reminds people of the danger of failure and impacts on performance. But that is also why red could work on products with high carbon footprints - it not only elicits attention, but could well lead to consumers avoiding high carbon brands because of the effects on right-sided frontal cortical activity and on avoidance.

So, we can change how products are designed and labelled to provide information about carbon footprint (and provide an unconscious nudge in the right direction), but what else can we do? How can we get them to show the correct emotional response every time they buy a gas-guzzling car, or a high-carbon-footprint light bulb? How can we stop people taking long-haul flights to Mauritius or Chicago? Sometimes giving the basic information that an economy flight to Mauritius for one person uses 1.7 tonnes of CO2 (calculated on my carbon calculator) might be the wrong information too late. When I discovered this, I felt as if I had just eaten a hamburger in my nearest hamburger joint in Skokie and that it contained 1400 calories (which it probably did). I had the brownie and ice cream to follow because I was now in binge mode, trying to eat my way out of guilt. I had already sullied my body. What difference could some more make?

Al Gore had tried to change our emotional and cognitive thinking about the planet through his film An Inconvenient Truth, and in my new research I found that part of this film did produce significant emotional effects and it also affected what people thought they could do. This was a clear demonstration that our emotions and cognitions are linked inextricably. People need to understand the risks involved with their current behaviours, and many of the images in the Gore film are oddly indelible. I can close my eyes now and still see the power stations in China and the odd-looking maps of our planet sinking into the sea; how long these images will persist in my mind and how long they will impact on any aspect of my behaviour remains to be determined (they clearly weren’t flashbulb memories because details of the circumstances in which I viewed the film have already gone). We clearly do need to do more research to determine what kinds of message provoke the biggest emotional and cognitive changes, and we need this research urgently.

This was my first venture into this area: I have no real idea why deep down inside I commenced this particular journey. It might have been because of Laura Sale; it might not have been. Who knows which way my unconscious mind was directing me? The research was throwing up many more questions than I was answering, that was clear, but questions that I felt deserved an answer.

I had stood the day before in McNeill’s lab, talking about my research to a group of young, optimistic and very sharp postgraduate students. I had been a postgraduate at Cambridge, and there I had been socialised into a culture where seminars could be interrupted at any point, during the title if necessary(!), and it was that kind of afternoon that I had at the University of Chicago. It was stimulating and demanding and fun (full of interruptions and heated exchanges), and I realised that there is a lot of talent out there that could see the potential in examining the conscious and unconscious mind at work and how both parts of the human mind might think and feel about the environment.

After the seminar, David McNeill, one of the most charming and creative psychologists I have ever met, walked me around the campus in the sweltering heat, my tee-shirt sticking to me. He showed me the bronze sculpture by Henry Moore that depicts nuclear energy on the site of the world’s first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1. Here Enrico Fermi produced the first sustained controlled nuclear reaction in the Manhattan Project. This sculpture was unveiled at 3.36 p.m. on 2 December 1967, twenty-five years to the minute after the actual event. Many visitors think that the sculpture resembles a mushroom cloud, but others just see this as a (somewhat malevolent) human skull. And, of course, it is both: one moment it is a skull, the next it is a cloud. The most destructive force in the world coming from a human mind, the mind encased in its protective skull helmet. I touched the bronze sculpture and it was boiling hot in the Chicago heat in the 90s; I wanted to remember the heat that afternoon (it might just be a stimulus to action), like a foretaste perhaps of what was to come.

But that night I had a strange moment on my nightly run, as I was coming back from Harms Woods just outside Skokie (what an ominous name, I thought later). It was still too hot to run, my brain was working slowly and the road intersections were complex and unfamiliar. As I was crossing the road I looked to my left and I saw it coming round a large bend. I realised that it was not going to be able to stop, even though part of me thought that it was bound to: cars always stop (that is what my sum total of experiences had taught me so far). It was an odd moment that slowed down for ever as the grey bonnet of the car sloughed into me. I somehow managed to stay on my feet, which I suspect was just as well, otherwise the car would have gone over me. I somehow managed to bounce off the car. The driver was very concerned (as were all the other drivers who stopped). He was hesitant and stammering, saying that he wasn’t used to runners, out on that road, and he wanted to take me to the hospital for a check-up (I suspect that is the American way), but I insisted on running back to my hotel, my left leg trembling, well beyond my conscious attempts to control it, a strange unfamiliar gait to my run. I had found my flashbulb memory (and I had a black eye for a few weeks as a cue to memory, just in case I needed it).

The problem that human beings have, of course, is that evolution has prepared us to survive in the here and now, not in a century’s time. As an individual human being, one’s life can finish at a crossroads in Skokie on a night too hot for this time of year. I am sure that, after last night’s run, every intersection I cross will be done with greater care and attention. I have a clear and unmistakeable flashbulb memory of the accident (and of Michael Jackson’s death, which I learned about the following day). My learning mechanisms are adapted to allow me to change my behaviour on one trial when it is necessary (see Seligman’s classic 1970 paper on this topic), but changing my behaviour for things that may happen in a hundred years’ time is a different issue altogether. It is quite simply not how our brains work in terms of implicit and unconscious processes. Richard Dawkins, some time ago, described human beings in terms of the concept of the selfish gene, and perhaps we are all just selfish gene machines trying to survive and trying to get our own genes into the next generation; no more, no less. For us to save the planet we will have to find ways to go beyond some of these natural biological instincts.

But I was pleased that, despite all these negatives, certain messages were getting through and that some psychological change was happening. Our unconscious attitude to the environment seemed to be relatively favourable, even now (I suspect that it would not have been quite so positive in the past, but we have no actual data on this). Our unconscious mind seems to know already that low-carbon-footprint products are good; now we need to make sure that this is translated into actual behaviour.

What will be the stimulus for behavioural change? It will almost certainly not be small essays on the side of products about the size of the carbon footprint or rational arguments with cosy, homely metaphors about global warming (where are my slippers?). We need to recognise that human beings have a conscious and an unconscious mind (Freud at least was right on that, but wrong on the role of the sexual drive and the libido in their subdivision). If we want to change unconscious non-reflective behaviour of the kind that is destroying the planet, we need to communicate more directly with the unconscious mind. It is as simple and as complex as this. But we know that this is at least possible, because we do it every time we unconsciously gesture and other people unconsciously respond to the critical information in the gestures. Of course, recognising that there are two great subsystems in the mind might be one small step in the process of making progress in this area.

So finally, say I was asked to explain in one sentence why we aren’t saving the planet (that, after all, is what I was implying in the title - some sort of pithy and short answer), on the basis of the psychological explorations that I have carried out in this book. What would I really say was the answer from a psychological perspective? I think I would probably say something like the following: ‘We aren’t saving the planet because not enough people care deeply enough, and those who do have failed to understand the minds of those who don’t, and how these other minds (and indeed their own) are essentially divided into two great subsystems, each with its own essential instincts and logic. Until we understand more about these instincts and logic and how the two subsystems learn and adapt and direct behaviour, I feel that real cooperative action between human beings will be a major problem in the area of sustainability and climate change.’

Of course, it turned out to be two sentences in the end, and not just one. But I think that this is allowable in the present circumstances. Just think of it as one sentence from each half of my brain, and let’s leave it at that. For the moment.