Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change

by | 1.9.2012 at 2:15pm | 10 Comments
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Why haven’t we rallied our collective power to mitigate climate change?

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” argues that the human brain is poorly equipped to respond to global warming.

3D rendering of a brain - Photo by Muehlenau

Our ability to mentally time-travel between the past, present and future and act in accordance with personal and shared goals is a result of the magnificent human-prefrontal cortex. Evolution, guided by natural selection, has tinkered with this brain region for millions of years, aiding us in the unrelenting pursuit of survival and reproduction. By learning from the past and imagining alternative futures, we perform complex cognition functions that inform decision making and allow us to respond to threats that endanger our well-being.

The ominous sound of a rattle snake, the sight of a crouching tiger, or even the whiff of smoke all send off sonorous physiological alarms in our brains. We run, fight, scream, hide, or feign death with impeccable precision and speed. Our senses work to immediately steer us from danger—we are the ultimate survival machines.

But are we?

Among the many threats on our radar, it is evident from the political discourse in the United States that global warming is unique. Though scientific studies confirm that rising global temperatures and shifting climate patterns threaten human health, biodiversity, ecosystem sustainability, food security, water and air quality, and other ecosystem services on which we depend, less than half of adults worldwide see global warming as a threat to themselves and their families. Why aren’t we more worried about this looming disaster?

Daniel Gilbert argues that human brains evolved to respond to threats that have four features, ones that global warming lack.

Firstly, global warming isn’t tied to social intention or plotting. Our brains are highly specialized for thinking about the devious schemes of others because social interaction (both in terms of cooperation and detecting defecting) crucial to the survival of our species. Unlike anthrax and terrorism, climate change lacks agency, and is instead an emergent property of more nebulous interactions.

Secondly, global warming doesn’t violate our moral intuitions. Unlike dangers that are tied to emotional aversions, such as hurting an animal or burning a book, chemicals in the atmosphere do not make us angry or repulsed.

Thirdly, humans are masters at responding to immediate threats (such as a zooming baseball or a hungry predator), but are novices at acting to resolve worries of the distant future.

Lastly, Daniel Gilbert argues that global warming occurs so gradually that it goes undetected by the brain. Though the human brain is very sensitive to chemical and psychical changes such as light, temperature, pressure, sound, size, and weight, incremental differences largely go unnoticed.

To learn more about Daniel Gilbert’s perspective on the intersection of social psychology, evolution, and climate change, listen to the full Popcast.

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10 Responses to “Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change”

  1. Gator says:

    “Among the many threats on our radar, it is evident from the political discourse in the United States that global warming is unique. Though scientific studies confirm that rising global temperatures and shifting climate patterns threaten human health, biodiversity, ecosystem sustainability, food security, water and air quality, and other ecosystem services on which we depend, less than half of adults worldwide see global warming as a threat to themselves and their families.”

    Care to back any of those ridiculous claims with peer reviewed papers? The fact is that warming is beneficial to humans, that is why past warm periods are known as ‘optimums’. Ice ages kill. How an adult can confuse these is beyond me.

  2. Brian Carter says:

    Firstly, Global warming stopped in 1998 as CO2 continued to climb.

    Secondly, global warming doesn’t respond to CO2. CO2 responds to warming.

    Thirdly, Humans are master at adaptation. They inhabit the hottest driest climates on earth, but not the coldest.

    As Gator said, cold kills. Humans thrive in warmer periods. AGW is a religious cult. And like all cult members, they are the last to realize it is a cult.

  3. CB says:

    Are you people serious???

    “Firstly, global warming isn’t tied to social intention or plotting.”

    Only a hippie could make a statement which is so completely, so UTTERLY, at odds with reality. Only another hippie could stand up and applaud it.

    Humans ARE abstract thinkers, not mindless animals with a few operational modes as suggested above: seldom have I read such utter drivel as the ’4 features’ quoted. The fact is that many people can SEE that the AGW scare is supported by little more than pixie-dust ‘science’ (these are the same people who have been noted as being the more educated, with a better grounding in science, than the AGW hippies), and can SEE that its supporters range from gibbering-hippie-idiots to vile-hippie-liars. These abstractions are why so many people disregard AGW.

    Gilbert is nothing more than an example of the perfect insanity that hippie academia breeds.

  4. J.Pain says:

    I like making arguments when I restate my opponents position into something ridiculous and cast it aside with a trite statement nobody can refute. Obviously the opposite of global warming is an ice age and were it not for the gracious omission of greenhouse gases, we would reside in an ice age on the verge of extinction. Condescending adults equipped with straw men are the best.

    Let me posit: why are some people concious of global warming, while others ignore it? Have the brains of some developed to recognize a fifth threat?

  5. Warren says:

    Care to share yout thoughts on people who put their faith in unvalidated threats?

    Perhaps start by looking at why you think climate change is a threat when there is evidence to suggest that alarmists are running a scare campaign and that there is little possibility of the temperature being 5 degrees higher forever from tomorrow, or us being inundated is sea water as a result of polar melt by 3PM this afternoon. Oh my, could you be an alarmist?

    I’d suggest that we are in fact responding adequately to the immediate threats by ignoring people like you who continue to paint a picture of an impending disaster that is as sure to arrive as the moon at night time.

    How climate change can go undetected by the human brain with alarmists making so many outlandish ooga booga claims on a daily basis is beyond me. Perhaps they are being gifted the contempt they deserve?

    So tell me Professor Gilbert, why are you better attuned to the situation, what has convinced you of the end of the world being nigh to the extent that you should question the mental capacity of those that haven’t joined your way of thinking?

  6. Howard Crawford says:

    Are people who publish hot air so lazy they can’t take a little time to discover that CO2 is still increasing yet world temperatures are decreasing. AGW warming thoery is therefore disproved. There never was ANY evidence of warming, just computer models.

  7. Gator says:

    For a wonderful insight to the accuracy of Peter Gleick’s comments and his fine research ethics, see this piece where Peter is taken behind the woodshed for not reading the required material…

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/16/donna-laframboises-new-book-causing-reviews-in-absentia-amongst-some-agw-advocates/

    Makes one wonder how much non-reading Peter did to ‘earn’ his Phd in ‘Energy Resouces’. ;)

  8. Wait a minute there Doc, some people do believe it!! says:

    Gilbert’s ideas may explain in part why some people don’t believe the theory, but doesn’t explain why some people do believe it. People are responding to a lot of threats and opportunities at any given time, global warming may have to stand in line with the other threats, so even if people believed it (and their motivations tell them not to) they may have many bigger and more immediate problems, and associated tradeoffs, in their faces right now.

    If the polar ice caps melt down, the ocean currents stop running, and the global climate responds to the global heat distribution failure by going into a statified ice age, as the global warming scanario predicts, then gobal warming scenario will have made to the front burner. I hope it doesn’t.

    Bart Schuster
    Twitter.com/arrive2_net

  9. [...] argument goes, evolution has hardwired us to respond to immediate dangers (think tigers and bears), not slow-moving, hard to grasp threats like melting glaciers and rising sea [...]

  10. Bel says:

    Lol. These comments just made my day. Seriously the science don’t lie… Read a book. Or a research report.

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