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Expert Q&A: Dr. Susie Burke

Can people actually be motivated to act altruistically?

Dr. Susie Burke, a psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society (APS), looks at ways of using psychological knowledge to enhance community well-being and promote social justice. A significant part of her work in the Psychology in the Public Interest team at APS is to examine and promote the role that psychology can play in helping us understand the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change. She produces materials for psychologists, the public and the media on a range of topics including environmental threats, talking with children about the environment, natural disasters, violence, racism, and refugees. Susie’s current areas of interest include public understandings of climate change, psychosocial impacts of climate change, communicating about environmental problems, and promoting pro-environmental behavior.  Susie is the author of a series of articles, tip sheets and position statements on psychology and the environment, published on topics ranging from psychological barriers to pro-environmental behavior, environmental dispute resolution, and social dilemmas. Susie lives on the edge of the bush in Central Victoria, Australia, with her partner and three children, and we were delighted to have the chance to chat with her.

Article Index

One of the conclusions of your paper “Hope, despair and transformation: Climate change and the promotion of mental health and well-being,” which appeared in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems in 2008, was that “climate change is already impacting on the social, economic, and environmental determinants of mental health, with the most severe consequences being felt by disadvantaged communities and populations.”  That was six years ago. Has this impact worsened? Can you give us an example?

It has worsened. In the Torres Strait region of Australia, there are low-lying communities on a series of islands. They are now subjected to an increased threat of high tides and storm surges. These surges sweep into their community, wash through their homes, and salinate fresh water and crops. These kinds of things used to happen every few years, but with climate change, it happens on a much more regular basis. The impact this has on the community is profound.

Climate change impacts of this nature do not involve a sudden realization of “hey, we can’t live here anymore.” Rather, they involve a slow process of having your quality of life degraded over time, with increased threats of it happening again before you’ve had a chance to recoup your losses.  Apart from the hardship created every time your home is messed up, crops are tainted, and infrastructure is wiped away (which then has psychosocial implications for the whole community), the uncertainty about how much longer you can live there, where you’ll go, and what you’ll leave behind takes an enormous toll.  [The indigenous peoples of these islands] have a connection to place that goes back thousands of years to their ancestors. It’s not like the entire community will move to the same place and reestablish itself. So there are themes of loss, displacement, and fracturing of community.

When I talk about psychological impacts of climate change, I look at the whole spectrum, from mental health impacts, which include diagnosable mental health conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, to psychosocial impacts, which have more to do with the increase in relationship stress, family violence, to community health impacts, which are the ways in which community fabric is impacted. This example illustrates a number of those different ways that climate change can have a toll on psychological health.

Australia has so many indigenous communities living on or near the coasts, like those in the Torres Strait. In addition to the very proximal threat that sea level rise poses to their well-being, what is the impact of climate change on the psyche of someone whose world view is that of a living, breathing environment of which we humans are but one small part?

When you have people whose whole spirituality, well-being, and sense of place is connected with the land on which they live, and that land is changing, that is profoundly impactful. In 2004, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia,” which is a way to describe the grief and loss that comes when the familiar environmental markers of your home are permanently changed or lost. We can all experience that, but you can imagine that it must be much more severe for people whose very identity and cultural identity are embedded in a particular landscape. [see this paper for more information.]

Can psychology’s body of knowledge about extrinsic and intrinsic values inform our efforts to change behavior– whether we’re talking about a single action like not using fertilizer on your lawn or turning off the tap when you brush your teeth, or a major change like shifting one’s world view from anthropocentric to one that is more like that of indigenous peoples? 

We are all bi-conceptual. Our values can largely be grouped into two categories: intrinsic and  extrinsic. Extrinsic values are about power, status, glory, and “progress.” Intrinsic values, which are also called “self-transcendent” values, take people out of their own self-importance. They are about community–caring for others, including future generations and the biosphere. We all hold both of these types of values. What researchers are noticing is that when we promote and prime people to think about intrinsic values, particularly when they are making a decision to behave in a certain way, they are more likely to adopt pro-social (or in our case, pro-environmental) behavior.

Some psychologists and other social scientists who have been looking at the influence of values on behavior recently developed a movement called Common Cause. They are doing research and teaching about the power of intrinsic and extrinsic values to influence behavior–particularly pro-environmental behaviors. They use the words “common cause” because in their research, they have discovered that when you promote intrinsic values for one cause, like the environment, it improves people’s prosocial behavior in other causes as well. Their argument is that every time groups working to improve community well-being, social justice, poverty, or the environment promote intrinsic values to drive a desired behavior, there is a bleed-through effect on the other associated areas. So the more we promote values in our own area of work, the more we lift the possibility for positive prosocial change. Common Cause is an excellent resource for people looking to find those ways to promote intrinsic values.

What are other ways that psychology can help efforts to influence behavior that benefits the environment?

Psychology can help with the uptake of pro-environmental behavior and encouraging people to do greater advocating for policy change. A number of psychologists have been doing excellent work on this area. One who I’ve found to be particularly readable and useful is the Canadian psychologist, Doug McKenzie-Mohr. He has done a lot of work related to the psychological barriers to sustainability. Another is a social psychologist from Auckland, Niki Harré, who wrote a book called Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability. George Marshall, from the UK, just published a book called Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. He looks at reasons why it is easy to deny or minimize the reality of climate change and how to overcome that.

Over the years, I have given numerous presentations, and one of the most useful things I try to do is make [human] cognitive biases explicit. I try to help people see that our brain simplifies a lot of incoming information so that we can function in an over-stimulating world. Some of these biases are not very helpful in terms of pro-environmental behaviors. For example, we have a bias to pay attention to things that are here, now, and for sure. This often translates into doing things that give us a short-term gain rather than a delay in gratification and a long-term gain. One of the problems with climate change is that the behaviors we’re asking people to do have gains that are in the future and are only achievable with a collective effort to reduce consumption and carbon emissions.

Another bias that hinders us is the status quo bias. We are more inclined to go along and make decisions sticking with the status quo because it is familiar and easy. Often, what we need to do is break out of the status quo and come up with completely new ways of doing things, but that involves more effort.

One of the other things I find quite fascinating that comes out of decades of social psychology research is the power of social norms. We know from research that just providing people with information about what they should do that would benefit the environment, like reducing consumption of energy, does not necessarily change their behavior. Rather, the biggest influence on behavior is other people. So the more people are able to model the behavior you want others to do, the more success you’ll have in getting people to change behavior. Psychologists have done experiments in restaurants, for example, where they’ll get some patrons to compost their food [waste] in compost bins in the restaurant. They found that signs at the table with information about why composting is good for the planet didn’t work nearly as effectively as having patrons model that behavior.

We’re very easily influenced by the behavior of others. That’s one reason why it’s so important for our leaders to show good stewardship on the environment, promote other leaders who do the same, and not emphasize those who don’t. Talking about how many  people are not taking action can actually make inaction the norm.  It’s more important that we talk publicly about how many people do believe that climate change is real and urgent (e.g., 73% in America; 88% in Australia), and about the millions of people all around the planet who are taking positive action to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment.  Then, that behaviour becomes the norm, and even more people will join in, because people love to fit in and be normal. Jon Krosnick, a Stanford professor of communication and of political science,  who conducts survey research on how people view climate change, does some of the best quality research in this area in America. (Comparable Australian research is done by Professor Joseph Reser and his colleagues.)

In 2010, with your input, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) issued a statement on Psychology and Climate ChangeOne of the aims of the statement was to foster the development of national and international collaborations … inside and outside of psychology.” The American Psychological Association has a Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology & Global Climate Change. What other national communities of psychologists are trying to integrate psychology into efforts to solve environmental problems?

That American Psychological Association Task Force has produced one of the most useful summaries of the ways in which psychological science can contribute this area. Psychologists for Social Responsibility has a branch that is campaigning around environmental issues. Here in Australia, the Australian Psychological Society has been involved, as a founding partner, in the Climate and Health Alliance, which is a part of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. This alliance includes psychologists and other social scientists, but also doctors, hospitals, and all types of health care workers. Their mission is to advocate for good policies on climate change. In July of this year, the International Congress of Applied Psychologywhich is held every four years, had the largest number of papers from environmental psychologists than ever before.

Other than that conference and the Global Climate and Health Alliance, have there been any efforts on an international level to collectively push for more involvement by psychologists in addressing challenges like biodiversity loss and climate change?

Recently, a new field of study has emerged called Conservation Psychology (Saunders, 2009). Conservation psychology is the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage people to care about and take care of the natural world. It is an applied field that uses psychological principles, theories, or methods to understand and solve issues related to conservation. Collectively, any activities that support sustainability, either by reducing harmful behaviors or by adopting helpful ones, can be called conservation behaviors. As well as a field of study, conservation psychology is also an actual network of researchers and practitioners who work together to understand and promote a sustainable and harmonious relationship between people and the natural environment. This field of conservation psychology is also a possible way to mobilise other disciplines within psychology towards sustainability issues.

Many psychologists working in this area have connections the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management. And there are many journals that they contribute to, like Society and Natural Resources, and of course, the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Environment and Behavior.

Nearly two years ago, you represented the Australian Psychological Society and presented a submission in response to a federal parliamentary inquiry into “Australia’s Biodiversity in a Changing Climate.” Thinking back to that day, what was the most important thing you wanted to communicate?  

I wanted to communicate that psychologists and other social scientists have a valuable contribution to make to discussions about climate change and environmental threats. Solving climate change requires profound changes of behavior at all levels of society—individual, group, and organizational. Social scientists are experts in human behavior and they absolutely need to be at the table in developing policies that the public will act on.

Another point I wanted to make was that biodiversity is incredibly important for human well-being. Healthy ecosystems make an essential contribution to our quality of life. Biodiversity, even in an urban environment, plays a key role in proper mental functioning. Healthy biodiversity and flourishing natural environments carry a symbolic message that we live in a naturally ordered world of beauty, inspiration, hope and meaning. This is even more important in a troubled and changing world.

There is a lot of research that looks at the sense of restoration (renewal of depleted psychological resources) that people get when they spend time in a natural environment, or in ‘green spaces.’ As we go through each day, our capacity to direct attention and ward off distractions, diminishes with use. Psychologists have found that being in a natural environment, like walking in the bush, or spending time in a park, allows that capacity [to focus attention] to rest and be restored. They call the quality of being in nature “fascination.” Natural environments, which are non-linear, varied, and have many aesthetically pleasing stimuli, attract and hold our attention effortlessly. Spending time in an environment that does not require reliance on directed attention allows us to rest the inhibitory mechanism on which directed attention depends and so to recover the capacity to direct attention.

The restoration that comes from time spent in natural environments includes reducing stress, improving attention, improving cognitive abilities, and the ability to reflect. Numerous studieshave demonstrated that contact with natural environments offers a relatively effective way of obtaining restoration from stress and mental fatigue compared to ordinary outdoor urban environments. Indeed, research shows that the more biologically diverse the ‘green space,’ the greater its psychological value .

Has anyone looked into the restorative power of biodiversity with regards to Alzheimer’s or dementia?

I wonder. I did just hear about some work in UK with dementia patients, where they were getting them to walk barefooted, and found that it seemed to improve not only their balance, but their well-being. Apparently there is something about the sensory information associated with having your feet and toes spread on the ground.

Can you share an example of a situation in which an Australian government agency or private entity has successfully integrated psychology into any projects aimed at enhancing resilience in both ecosystems and human communities?

A colleague of mine, Professor Helen Ross, has done an interesting project on how to develop community resilience in rural Queensland communities.  She blends key environmental psychology ideas about the ways in which people interact cognitively and behaviorally with physical environments, and how those natural, farmed or built environments enable or constrain people’s opportunities  She sees social resilience as how individuals, communities and societies adapt, transform, and potentially become stronger when faced with environmental, social, economic or political challenges. This definition recognizes the synergistic relationship between people and the environments in which they live and derive livelihoods.

In an article which appeared this summer in the Sydney Morning Herald, you were quoted as saying, “… many people in the field of climate change are distressed–highly distressed–and it can have a significant psychosocial impact on their wellbeing.“ You also discussed the risk of disengagement. John Fraser’s studies have shown that having a community of support and opportunities to express negative feelings contributes to resilience among environmental workers. Would you agree? What tips would you offer environmental workers?

I couldn’t agree more. Even though there isn’t much empirical evidence available examining the mental health effects of working in the environmental field on the enormous challenge of climate change, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to raise our concerns about how distressing this work can be. This is particularly the case for us in Australia at the moment, where the Abbott Government is winding back many of our existing climate policies, and severely dragging its feet on emission reductions and the transition to a zero carbon economy.

I agree with [Dr. Fraser] that one of the most important ways to keep your spirits up and motivation going is to associate with other people who are also taking effective action on climate change.  Not only do likeminded people give us support and ideas, but we also get a good sense of group efficacy when we work with other people on joint projects. Getting some ‘wins,’ and then celebrating those wins, is enormously important. Be emotionally honest.  It can be helpful to acknowledge your fears, anger, guilt, and distress, as well as your own tendencies to ignore, deny, or minimize the threats. Talking about this also helps others to identify and acknowledge similar reactions in themselves. And finally, don’t forget to spend time in nature!

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