In just about a week, we’ll be celebrating another New Year’s Eve. And along with the merrymaking and reflection on the past year, we’ll also be pondering what we want to accomplish in the next 12 months. While many people resolve to achieve traditional, long-term goals—such as eating healthier, losing weight or adopting a more sustainable lifestyle—they often find it difficult to do so. Does it all come down to a lack of self-discipline?
Here’s some good news for you: no, it does not.
And, as I see it, there’s a parallel to our personal New Year’s resolutions that’s on the global level and that has much more import: the promises of nations to meet climate change goals. Yet years after the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries throughout the world just can’t seem to make their convictions stick.
While science can let you off the hook for your waning enthusiasm by February regarding your personal resolutions, it can’t absolve us from the wider, climate change issue. But, at least, we’re starting to understand why keeping such resolutions is so challenging.
It’s not your lack of willpower: we need more focus on the common good
We all blame ourselves when we bail out of our New Year’s resolutions by February. And it’s no wonder: when it comes to self-discipline, psychological research has traditionally focused on individual responsibility and telling us that the cause is our lack of willpower.
But now, some researchers believe this is too shortsighted. They say that self-discipline doesn’t work without effective regulations.
For a review article published in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology on November 20, 2023, social psychology Professor Wilhelm Hofmann from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, analyzed numerous research studies and highlighted the extent to which the physical and social environment influence individual behavior.
Combining psychological research with public policy studies, Hofmann argues that we need to be more aware of the fact that people don’t have the power to shape many of their own environments. While they’d like to live in a more sustainable manner, for instance, they can’t because unsustainable options are often cheaper, more visible and more available than sustainable ones.
Hofmann criticizes the fact that many psychological studies still tend to focus on the individual while ignoring crucial structural factors. Relying on individual discipline, a sense of guilt and willingness to make sacrifices, he believes, won’t get us very far. We need to question and change the structures that contribute to social problems, such as the overuse of natural resources, and to making sustainable behavior more difficult. To achieve this, he says, we need effective and sound political decisions. More eco-friendly regulations would help people avoid having to swim against the tide.
Unfortunately, though, traditional approaches—such as self-determination theory—focus on personal autonomy. This means that an individual’s freedom of choice must be preserved at all costs. This results in public policy recommendations that provide information about the identified risks and side effects of various options and then trust that people will make the right decisions and act appropriately—a formula that doesn’t work.
To illustrate this, Hofmann cites the example of an eco-conscious consumer who’d like to reduce his or her meat consumption, but occasionally is also tempted by a meat dish. In conventional psychology, this is regarded as a conflict within the individual; and if the person could only muster enough willpower, he or she would achieve their long-term goal.
But this misguided view doesn’t take into account that decisions are very much influenced by the environment; for example, there might be five meat dishes in the canteen, but only one vegetarian option—and that one might be the most expensive.
Too, people also wish to conform to social norms. If many of your friends and relatives drive big cars, you’re more likely to want one yourself.
Growing awareness of this problem—combined with the realization that some social challenges and crises can’t be solved through personal responsibility or free markets—is driving the desire for government intervention and solutions. In essence, we’ve forgotten to look at the collective benefit, and society needs to agree on good rules if we want to provide individuals with the best possible support on the path to the desired change towards greater sustainability.
Hofmann says that the accelerating climate crisis is the best example of how the unlimited exercise of personal consumer freedoms leads to negative consequences for society as a whole. We need to agree on effective and fair rules that protect us from risks and that apply to everyone equally, such as standard practices in road traffic, for example.
Of course, we as individuals must do our part, as well. We all can take small steps and help shape our environments wherever possible. And once your own creative power as a citizen, customer or employee reaches its limits, you can advocate for people with decision-making power to take up the cause. We always have the power to influence.
It’s not your lack of influence: climate disinformation is frustratingly persistent
Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, extreme heat waves: the consequences of climate change are more visible than ever, and the scientific community has confirmed that humans are responsible. Scientific consensus on human responsibility—reaffirmed by the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—has been in place for decades, yet studies show that a third of the world’s population still disputes or doubts these facts.
The cause, we know, is disinformation by certain companies and lobbies over the last 50 years. These messages can take the form of an unfounded questioning of the scientific consensus (97%) or an overestimation of the socio-financial burden of climate policies.
This disinformation weakens support for climate policies among certain sectors of the population. So, to try and prevent this from happening, a team from Switzerland’s University of Geneva (UNIGE) has developed and tested six psychological interventions on nearly 7,000 participants from 12 countries. The research, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior in November 2023, highlights the extremely persuasive nature of disinformation and the need to strengthen our efforts to combat it.
The important thing to know is that as individuals, we do not process scientific messages as neutral receivers of information. We weigh them against our prior beliefs, emotional ties, desired outcomes, and sociocultural and ideological backgrounds. And, depending on the configuration of these psychological factors, anti-scientific beliefs can be amplified and become resistant to correction, say the authors of this study.
On this basis, the researchers developed six, psychological intervention strategies aimed at preventing climate disinformation from affecting people’s climate-related behaviors and beliefs. Each strategy was linked to a particular theme (scientific consensus, trust in climate scientists, transparent communication, moralizing climate action, accuracy and positive emotions towards climate action).
This framework considers the source of the message, its content, its recipients and the psychological factors that can influence its processing. This framework also aims to identify the entry points for disinformation to access a person’s “psyche” and can be used to intervene and block—or encourage—people to accept information.
The participants in the study were divided into eight groups: six subjected to one of these strategies, one to disinformation without prevention, and a control group. The “trust in climate scientists” group, for example, received verified information demonstrating the credibility of IPCC scientists. The “transparent communication” group, meanwhile, was presented with information on both the advantages and the disadvantages of climate mitigation actions.
Each group was then exposed to 20 pieces of biased or false information, 10 pieces on climate science and 10 pieces on climate policy. The UNIGE scientists then measured their impact after these preventive interventions by asking the participants about their feelings regarding climate mitigation actions. Crushingly, they found that the protective effect of the strategies was small and disappeared after the second exposure to disinformation.
The researchers conclude that the climate disinformation used in this study had a negative influence on people’s belief in climate change and their sustainable behavior. Disinformation is, therefore, extremely persuasive, seemingly more so than scientific information. Only the “accuracy” group, who were asked to think in depth about the veracity of the information they encountered online, showed a slight advantage.
While research in this field is still in its infancy, it’s becoming increasingly urgent to combat this phenomenon, which is delaying the implementation of urgent climate change mitigation measures.
It’s not your lack of determination: we’re all making baby steps
Researchers suggest that only 9% of Americans that make New Year’s resolutions keep them. In fact, 23% of people quit their resolutions by the end of the first week, and 43% quit by the end of January.
On the global front, out of the larger, industrialized countries, the European Union, the United Kingdom and South Africa are currently the only places where the 2-degree Celsius goal is expected to be met, while it is projected to be missed in Canada, Japan and the United States.
On a more positive note, however, the Paris Agreement has achieved notable success by encouraging countries—such as China, Japan and the European Union—to set carbon neutrality goals and embrace net-zero targets, which means that each country commits to reducing emissions close to zero, with any remaining emissions reabsorbed without significant environmental impact.
I see that as hope for your own, personal resolutions, too.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,