September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

We may have the technological solutions to help fight environmental change and create a sustainable society, but do we have the right psychology? Anna Perman investigates

Aren’t humans clever? We have colonised every corner of the world, and created a global community. It is the large and magnificently organised human brain which has enabled us to do this.

Your brain has complex systems in place that allow you to distinguish between what is true or false, and what is rational or irrational. These systems are the basis of reason, and the foundations of science. However, these systems can fail us, making us blind to the threats humankind faces, or simply unwilling to act to save ourselves from them.

Would you notice if the Queen’s Tower was shrinking?

For instance, we cannot hold two conflicting notions in our head; it hurts us, it can even cause us severe distress. We feel an urgent need to change one of the two conflicting things. This is called cognitive dissonance, and it helps us to order things in our head.

When we hold two conflicting beliefs in our heads, our brain’s mechanism for dealing with this is simply to modify the less deeply-held of these beliefs. On the whole, this is a good way to deal with the world, and helps us avoid having to constantly change our mind about things.

However, this inherent strategy can also render us completely oblivious to things that are problematic, or even cause us to flatly refuse accepting evidence which contradicts our more deeply- or longer-held beliefs.

We have grown up in a consumer society, which tells us we need a car to get around, and that we must have the latest gadgets and clothes. Changing our old habits is pretty difficult – even though most of us know we should recycle more, drive less and live simply, it’s pretty hard to fight the ideas of ‘normal life’ we have held since childhood.

This phenomenon is called ‘persistence in error’ – a pretty self-explanatory term; if we have grown up with a certain lifestyle, we are unwilling to abandon it.

Our methods of perceiving the world also don’t help the cause. We filter out a significant proportion of the information which comes into our sensory organs, thus helping us to focus our attention on the things which are important.

This is brilliant. It is how we have been able to apply ourselves to great feats of engineering, to pay attention to the important social signals given off by those around us, and reach work every day without stopping to look at everything and listen to every conversation we hear.

But, you guessed it, it also has its downside. We miss out on a hell of a lot. Imagine somewhere you pass every day: The Queen’s Tower, for instance. If the whole thing were demolished overnight, you’d probably notice it on your way onto campus next morning. Now imagine if, every week, The Queen’s Tower were shortened by a few centimetres, a ‘creeping normalcy’ of tiny changes, which you hardly notice amongst all the other things grabbing your attention. Over the year, The Queen’s Tower gets shorter and shorter. You would hardly notice if it got down to ankle height, and then the next week it’s gone. This ‘landscape amnesia’ is part of the reason that we are capable of hunting animals to extinction and completely deforesting whole areas.

It doesn’t happen all at once, but only when we see the difference between our planet now and 50 years ago can we see the effect years and years of slow deforestation has had. But do we really notice it while it is happening?

Hopefully, our human ingenuity will provide us with ways to overcome these failings. For instance, keeping photos, maps and records might help us to wake up to the way we are killing the planet. And a slow culture change is taking place to help instil more environmental awareness in future generations. There is hope yet, but we need to be aware of our flaws and use our stupendous brain power to overcome them.