On 10th February 2020, we hosted The Psychology of Climate Action (and Inaction) which explored how public leaders can influence perception, cognition, and action on an individual and collective basis, to mobilise exponential change towards a sustainable future, using insights from psychology and neuroscience.

The event commenced with four thought-provoking talks from Kate Jeffery, Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, UCL; Daniel Vennard, Director, Better Buying Lab, World Resources Institute; Claire Howes Director of Marketing, Smart Energy GB; and Oliver Payne, Founder and Director, The Hunting Dynasty.

Using behavioural psychology to tackle climate inaction

Kate Jeffery, Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at UCL, explained how psychology can shed light on the reasons behind climate inaction. Strong feelings of fear or denial allow us to push aside large existential threats; the scale of the climate challenge inhibits human understanding; and the recurring ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ problem means we have to find new ways of cooperating for collective action. However there are reasons to be optimistic. Humans are unusually attached to the future in comparison to other animals, and as social beings we are able to use our social affiliations to form global movements. Kate suggests that capitalism could be harnessed as a tool to tackle the climate crisis and make it economically advantageous for people to act differently.

Nudging sustainable food choices with behavioural science

Daniel Vennard, Director of the Better Buying Lab within the World Resources Institute, outlined his vision for the next transformation of the food system, emphasising that we can transform our economy and the environment at large through the right use of behavioural and neuroscience. Drawing on work from the WRI, Daniel noted there are a number of tools and techniques which can change norms and help consumers make fast decisions which are also pro-social and pro-environmental. These include changing the language and framing of plant-based food, changing the default offer to consumers, and joining up individual nudges in institutional contexts.

Framing messages for climate action

Oliver Payne, Founder and Director of The Hunting Dynasty, noted how the style and context of a message can matter more than the message itself. With climate change action often feeling abstract and impersonal to the public, he explained how the right ‘packaging’ of an issue can bring it closer to home. As research on the adoption of solar panels has shown, environmentally friendly attitudes do not always result in sustainable behaviour – the clearest indicator of whether a person would put up solar panels was whether their neighbour had one, not if they believed in climate change. Consumer and citizens’ behaviour is highly malleable and can be shaped and framed according to people’s real interests.

Promoting pro-climate behaviours at scale

Claire Howes, Director of Marketing at Smart Energy GB, spoke about her experiences nudging pro-climate behaviours at scale, through TV, radio and print campaigns to encourage individuals to adopt smart meters in their homes. The development of a hyper-personalised communication strategy was used to overcome barriers such as short-termist attitudes, low public trust in the utility industry and the perception of energy being boring. Framing campaign messaging as tangible, human stories is key and foster a collective sense of environmental responsibility.