Thursday, March 8, 2012

Psychology of Climate Change: Communicating How We Think

Community psychologists are very interested in understanding cultural ways of knowing. The concept of ‘ways of knowing’ is meant to indicate that our outlook on life is greatly impacted by how we are raised in our culture—the things we think about, how we think about these things, different ways we define a problem, different solutions we might come up with, etc. That is not to say that everyone within a culture thinks exactly the same.

A quick exercise:
  1. If you are American, think for a minute and define “American culture.” Do you fit this definition?
  2. Now pretend you are not American, and define “American culture.” How well do you fit this definition?
[If you are not American, substitute your own country or culture of your choice.]

As an American, I can think of a zillion ways in which I am not your average American. But when I place myself in the shoes of an outsider looking in, oh yeah, I can see a zillion ways in which I’m a pretty typical American. These are different ways of knowing. In studying cultural ways of knowing, patterns emerge. Yes, huge variations also exist, but cultural ways of knowing can help us to understand both the patterns and the variations. It’s all a matter of the outlook you have, and something psychologists like to call “the problem definition.”
One of my favorite examples of cultural divergences in the problem definition comes from a study done in the late 1960s. Greenfield (1997) summarized it this way:

“Cole, Gay, Glick, and Sharp (1971) took an object-sorting task to Liberia, where they presented it to their Kpelle participants. There were 20 objects that divided evenly into the linguistic categories of food, implements, food containers, and clothing. Instead of doing the taxonomic sorts expected by the researchers, participants persistently made functional pairings (Glick, 1968). For example, rather than sorting objects into groups of tools and foods, participants would put a potato and a knife together because “you take the knife and cut the potato” (Cole et al., 1971, pg. 79). According to Glick, participants often justified their pairings by stating “that a wise man could only do such and such” (Glick, 1968, p. 13). In total exasperation, the researchers “finally said, ‘How would a fool do it?’ The result was a set of nice linguistically ordered categories—four of them with five items each” (Glick, 1968, p. 13). In short, the researchers’ criterion for intelligent behavior was the participants’ criterion for foolish; the participants’ criterion for wise behavior was the researchers’ criterion for stupid.

In this example, researchers and participants were all clearly able to understand and demonstrate all possible solutions to the task. But because of their different cultural ways of knowing, they tended to define the problem and the solution in different ways. Their initial assumptions were different, and so they tended to draw different conclusions about what they should do.

Another quick exercise:
  1. Google ‘climate change’ and read any article or watch any video clip that pops up.
  2. Scroll down to the comments and read them until you feel your brain turn to pudding.

You may have noticed that people think about climate change very differently. We have different ways of defining the problem (e.g., global threat of environmental catastrophe, liberal conspiracy to rule the earth, real thing that’s happening but no biggie, etc.). With each of these problem definitions comes a separate set of solutions (e.g., large-scale mitigation and adaptation efforts, decentralize power and let the free market reign, do nothing because it’ll sort itself out, etc.).

There is actually a scientific consensus on climate change that has been consistent for multiple decades. Plenty of uncertainties remain, including how bad the problem is going to be depending on what people decided to do. Emit more carbon? Big problem. Lower emissions? Less big problem. But there is so much misinformation out there, and so much more poorly understood information that climate scientists are really beginning to struggle with questions about communicating their research and findings to the general public. How best to translate science jargon into human speak? But just as important, scientists are realizing that, as scientists, they make a series of assumptions about knowledge, research, and data that non-scientists don’t necessarily make. Their ways of knowing are different. Much like the researchers trying to get the Kpelle to categorize objects in a specific way, climate scientists would like non-scientists to understand their data in a certain way so as to come to the same conclusions

Because of our history of work with culture and ways of knowing, community psychologists can contribute to climate change communication. A few examples have recently emerged in this aspect of the psychology of climate change. The American Climate & Environmental Values Survey found a number of ways of knowing that influence Americans’ understanding of and response to climate change. For example, “We’re not ready to abandon the American Dream” (p. 16). Communicating climate change research within the framework of sacrifice, without also focusing on potentials for positive development, turns Americans off. Also, Americans often respond to one of two types of morality: ‘we should address climate change because it’s the right thing to do,’ or, ‘we should address climate change before disasters harm our environment, and thus, harm us.’
Another recent report, How to Talk About Climate Change and Oceans: A FrameWorks Message Brief, discusses specifically the ways Americans feel out of step with the scientific community on climate change. For example, “They remain woefully ignorant of how exactly global warming works” (p. 1, italics in original) even though they have plenty of examples of it happening at home and abroad. Many Americans require a foundational tutorial about how the climate operates normally in order to understand how and why it might be changing. But take care in communicating this because, “When scientific data is presented in ways that seem exaggerated or overstated, Americans become more skeptical of claims about the origins of the problem and more likely to believe that the problem could be natural and not anthropogenic” (p. 2, italics in original).

Climate change is a very broad field that is so very complex. Community psychologists can positively contribute to this field by exploring people’s ways of knowing when it comes to the climate sciences. As mentioned before, huge variations will always exist within a culture, even within our cultural patters. But if we work toward an understanding of the climate change problem definition, we can begin to agree on action steps leading to solutions.

Greenfield, P. M. (1997). You can’t take it with you: Why ability assessments don’t cross cultures. American Psychologist, 52(10), 1115-1124.
Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J., & Sharp, D. W. (1971). The cultural context of learning and thinking. New York: Basic Books.
Glick, J. (1968, February). Cognitive style among the Kpelle of Liberia. Paper presented at the meeting on Cross-Cultural Cognitive Studies, American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Kati Corlew, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa