Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change
Why haven’t we rallied our collective power to mitigate climate change?
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.