Can psychology help understand and combat ecological catastrophe?

By Derek Boswell

The issue of climate change has been gaining traction with each passing moment. Seemingly so, anyways: News articles and government reports portray a grim future where natural resources are scarce and natural disasters are all too abundant (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2018). Countless documentary films suggest no different (Guggenheim & Gore, 2006). To some, this comes with an added dose of irony: Capitalism – the very system which can be owed to their box-office success, is the supposed driving force behind global pollution. To others, the ingenuity of free-market capitalism will provide the answer to our environmental ills. Not only is there infighting among climate change’s adherents, there is also a battle over the seriousness, legitimacy, and relevance of this issue. Indeed, some concerned citizens have made meaningful changes in their own lives, but this amounts to only a fraction of what climate change reports call for (IPCC, 2018). Nevertheless popular sentiment suggests that climate change poses an existential threat to the Earth, so what’s with all the talk, and not all the action?

This article will take a look at one study in particular, which aims to mitigate ecological harm through unlikely means; psychology. In “Redefining Climate Change Inaction as Temporal Intergroup Bias: Temporally Adapted Interventions for Reducing Prejudice May Help Elicit Environmental Protection” (2017), researchers Rose Meleady and Richard Crisp shed light on the psychological barriers yielding this disparity between action, inaction and disbelief in climate change.

As is often the case when giving science away to the public; methods, findings, implications and applications are often muddled through a misunderstanding of scientific vocabulary. To some, “temporal intergroup bias” may at first glance appear incomprehensible jargon. Simply put, this describes the perceptions one makes of ingroup and outgroup peers, and the favoritism bias inherent towards the former. In this case, groups are defined temporally; as living and future generations (Medleady & Crisps, 2017). It is this former generation’s prejudice for the latter that lies at the center of Meleady and Crisps’s hypothesis (2017).

Now, one might ask; how could prejudice possibly mediate climate change engagement!? Prejudice is so often conceived as racial bias or perhaps gender bias, but it can just as easily be generational – and it mustn’t necessarily be explicit bias either. Meleady and Crisp aptly cited a phrase from Barrack Obama’s final presidential address as an example of this: It would “betray future generations” to not act boldly on climate change (2017). Likewise, they paraphrase Pope Francis in stating “the destruction of the natural world for our own benefit as a sin against God and future generations” (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

Minimal Groups Paradigm suggests that the formation of groups may be founded upon any uniting factor, however arbitrary it may seem (Medleady & Crisps, 2017). By seeing our current generation as a separate entity from future ones, Meleady and Crisp hypothesize that, due to a favourable ingroup bias, we see climate change as a presumably distant threat and an irrelevant concern for our generation (2017): In this context, ingroup members – the present generation – are making sacrifices for the benefit of a future generation (e.g. reducing fuel consumption, plastic waste, industrial farming). This comes with little perceived intrinsic reward for ourselves, with no chance of reprisal from the temporally distant outgroup; the future generation. When we choose to support ingroup members, or feel less compassion for outgroup members who experience harm, this in effect, is prejudice. Most importantly, this highlights how psychology does indeed play a role in prejudice – not merely politics and physical traits (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

These temporal intergroup boundaries are arbitrary. As Meleady and Crisp believe; they are likely a product of our desire to socially categorize our peers – predicated upon a psychological urge to find patterns where they apparently exist, rather than a logical, political goal (2017). It’s in this distinction that the beauty of Meleady and Crisp’s research lies: Rather than attempting to outright extinguish this supposed psychological desire – a futile endeavor – the scientists intend to flip that desire on its head: By redefining the parameters of ingroup and outgroup membership (2017).

In a small 2017 pilot study designed to test the efficacy of this approach, Meleady and Crisp had 140 participants randomly divided into control and experimental groups. The experimental group was tasked with identify five similarities between present and future generations. The control group had a similar task, albeit with irrelevant categories (e.g. cats and dogs). Participants then rated how similar they felt to future generations, with the experimental condition reporting statistically significant scores, compared to the non-significant scores of their control group counterparts. In other words, Meleady and Crisp found the result they were hoping for; by consciously breaking down these arbitrary intergroup barriers, we do indeed have the ability to identify with, and accept, those outside of our traditional groups (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

Meleady and Crisp took this a step further with two subsequent 2017 experimental studies. Both were conducted to determine if changing intergroup attitudes can also garner pro-environmental behaviours. The first study asked 80 participants to think about present and future generations (like in the first study) or sports (an irrelevant issue). Participants were then asked if they would purchase a more environmentally sustainable version of common products such as jeans, milk, and electronic devices. The second study had a similar design to the first, albeit with a key difference: Participants were asked if they would perform more environmentally conscious behaviours that transcended mere buying habits (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

In both studies, the results met the researchers’ predictions: Not only can arbitrary intergroup barriers be broken down by demonstrating group similarity; this newfound similarity has the potential to foster better environmental stewardship behaviours too (Medleady & Crisps, 2017). This is all fine and well to say that a simple change in attitudes can be a great boon for establishing environmental concern, but is that really realistic? How could this research possibly generate tangible results in the real world, outside the laboratory? Surely, it wouldn’t be wise to make every ill-informed person on earth write down what they like about the next generation. Rather, I would contend that a far more reasonable, albeit somewhat sneaky application is at hand.

Our ideas about the world are not informed in a vacuum. What we read and how we feel about it is more important than ever. In what has been described as a post-truth era, the veritable weight of cold hard facts pales in comparison to emotional appeals (McIntyre, 2018). Each time a news article is written, a scientific report articulated, or dialogue with friends and family orated, it provides us with a valuable opportunity: If it can prompt us to consider personal relevance and why we should care for our fellow man or woman – no matter when they’ll inherit this planet – then perhaps we can find ourselves in a more ecologically-sensitive world. All the knowledge gained through scientific research can only be rendered useful if it is communicated well (McIntyre, 2018).

Communication is the sieve in the floodgate that strains words from actions: If done through dry and jargon-heavy means, our communication of this climate change problem only speaks to those who already know it’s a problem, while potentially alienating others. If done in a psychologically-sensitive way, the same statistics and findings can be transformed from informative to inspirational; helping one find congruence between their knowledge and feelings of the issue. That can ignite meaningful action, before it’s too late.

I would hope a more holistic method for communicating climate change findings is imparted before those findings become self-evident. In many ways, climate change is already here: A report from World Wildlife Foundation – which compiled data from dozens of climate scientists – suggests that humanity has killed over 60% of wild animals (World Wildlife Foundation, 2018). Likewise, a raise in global temperature of only a few more degrees would almost assuredly be catastrophic (IPCC, 2018). We are living in a dire situation, lying on the precipice of an ecological point-of-no-return. As such, it’s imperative we use every tool in our arsenal – including psychology – to combat this.



Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Summary For Policymakers. Retrieved from

Guggenheim, D. (Director), & Gore, A. (Screenwriter). (2006). An Inconvenient Truth [Video file]. France: Paramount Pictures. Retrieved November 1, 2018.

Meleady, R., & Crisp, R. J. (2017). Redefining climate change inaction as temporal intergroup bias: Temporally adapted interventions for reducing prejudice may help elicit environmental protection. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 53, 206-212. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2017.08.005

McIntyre, L. (2018). Post-truth. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

World Wildlife Foundation. (2018). Living Planet Report 2018: Aiming Higher. Retrieved from




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