UNSW: “Climate change and the tyranny of psychological distance”

Anxiety solution and freedom from fear and escape from tortured thinking and depression concept as a group of tangled barbwire or barbed wire fence shaped as a human head breaking free as a metaphor for psychological or psychiatric icon.

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

The University of New South Wales, birthplace of the Ship of Fools expedition which got stuck in the Antarctic ice, is concerned that people rapidly switch to other priorities, when disasters which don’t affect them personally are no longer front page news.

Climate change and the tyranny of psychological distance

03 SEP 2020   CAROLINE TANG 

With last summer’s bushfires largely out of the headlines, has the psychological distance people might feel towards climate change increased?

UNSW Sydney’s Professor Ben Newell has been researching climate change psychology for a decade and his work focuses on how to tackle the preconceived notions people have which cloud their decision-making in the face of an uncertain future. 

Prof. Newell said the past summer’s fire season was “extremely bad” but he wondered what would happen to people’s attitudes towards climate change if the bushfires were less severe this summer. 

“Last summer’s smoke haze was a big concern because some people were seeing it as the new norm. They shrugged and said, ‘Oh, it’s smoky today and we’ve had a couple of months of it, whatever,’ but it seems wrong to already be at the point of accepting that’s just the way things are now,” he said. 

Prof. Newell defined psychological distance as a “construct” in one of his studies: “Psychological distance refers to the extent to which an object is removed from oneself; for example, in likelihood of occurrence, in time, in geographical space or in social distance,” he said.

“So, if people perceive climate change as psychologically distant from themselves, they could construe it in more abstract terms, potentially impeding action if the threat is perceived as less real, tangible or relevant.

“For example, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic has been a wake-up call for years now but because they are sparsely populated, it’s not front and centre of many people’s concerns. 

“There’s a lot of literature that shows people adapt and acquiesce to seeing lots of the same type of stimulus over and over again – so, people become more and more likely to say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just the same thing’,” he said.  

“Sometimes even I find myself thinking, ‘I can’t think about this stuff anymore because it’s just too hard’, but I’m reminded of the necessity to keep talking about it, to keep reiterating the message.

“Even if there is a danger of habituation or disengagement, the danger of not talking about it is much worse. So, the continuous reminder these things are happening now and will keep happening again has to be part and parcel of it.”

Read more: https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/climate-change-and-tyranny-psychological-distance

What I find fascinating about Professor Newell’s words is the suggestion that he has to make a continuous personal effort to overcome his own natural tendency to habituate, to dismiss climate change as a high priority issue.

If even believers have to keep kicking themselves to believe, the end of the climate movement may be closer than we think.

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September 4, 2020 at 12:54AM

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