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What's stopping us acting on climate change?

smoggy sky over factory chimneys

People are hardwired to maintain the status quo.

In a nutshell

  1. There are a number of cognitive biases that are holding people back from acting on climate change, despite knowing it is the right thing to do. 
  2. Marketers can harness their understanding on applied behavioural science to encourage reappraisal. 
  3. New Zealanders feel that they cannot affect change as an individual, but that companies have the power to do so. 
  4. Companies need to focus on creating products that are climate-change friendly and making those products easy and rewarding for people.

People only change their behaviour when things affect them directly because we are wired to act only to either increase personal gain or to avoid pain, especially our own pain. That isn’t to say that we are not empathetic because we do literally feel other people’s pain – images of suffering on TV such as those experiencing the results of the latest climate change triggered storm cause similar brain activity to firsthand experience of suffering. But pain passes and is quickly forgotten, whereas established behaviour patterns are hard to shift even when a personal experience has influenced our attitudes and beliefs. Because attitudes, as any good marketer will tell you, don’t change behaviour. 

What we need is some leading-edge marketing principles applied to the climate change message if we are going to persuade people to change their behaviour to minimise human impact on global warming. Marketers understand applied behavioural science principles and climate change ticks just about every one of the core tenets.

Here are a few of the cognitive biases at play:

Wishful thinking bias

With a range from “it’s all a big mistake and it’s not really happening” through to “some brilliant piece of technology will come along and fix it”, which is the equivalent of thinking that Noah’s Arc will appear on the horizon when your neighbourhood is flooded, this is one of the reasons that people don’t prepare for disasters because their wishful thinking means they expect it either won’t happen to them or if it does the cavalry in the form of Civil Defence will rescue them.

Denial bias

Discounting or not believing an important or uncomfortable fact. And, we make this one very easy for people in our attempt to create balanced reporting by giving equal share of voice to both sides of the argument. No matter that 9 out of 10 scientific studies demonstrate climate change, a media body like the BBC will have a policy to ensure balance that will give equal time to both sides of the argument in programming schedules, allowing denial bias an easy ride. There is also a wealth of evidence that the other thing that triggers our denial bias is being presented with extreme outcomes. Shocking messages and catastrophic images cause our emotions to reject what is too hard to deal with. The anti-smoking campaigners learned that lesson the hard way when they used images of rotting lungs that were so alarming that it prompted people to create an alternative narrative “my uncle Albert smoked 60 a day and he was still riding his bike in his 80s”.

Delayed gratification bias

Seeking short-term rewards at the expense of greater long-term benefits. Although everything we know tells us that climate change is accelerating, we are still looking at something that will play out over decades not months and we also know that people aren’t good at taking a hit today for a benefit that’s a way off. At the very least it gives people a chance to delay when they will take action. We need to develop ideas that reward people today to overcome this bias.

So how do we get New Zealanders to change their behaviour?

"What we know about people is that their attitudes do not drive their behaviour, whereas when we change behaviour our attitudes follow." 

They say they want to, so that’s not the problem. The New Zealand Values study tracks how our values are shifting and it shows a steady increase in concern over the environment but a drop in how people value the need to take personal action. By comparison, the belief that companies should act is on the increase.

Our recent work on what constitutes the key characteristics of what makes us Kiwi has singled out our connection to nature as a core cultural code, reflecting a desire to retain our historical associations with the care and protection of our land. So far so good with Kiwi codes, attitudes and values, but what about behaviour?

What we know about people is that their attitudes do not drive their behaviour, whereas when we change behaviour our attitudes follow. For example, how we reconcile behavioural dissonance is one of the core foundations of applied behavioural science. If someone buys an electric car they will refresh and align their attitudes to carbon emissions to achieve a state of equilibrium between their attitudes and their behaviour, even though their motivation to buy an electric car might have had little to do with emissions.

"New Zealanders have told us that they don't think they can make any difference as an individual, but that companies can." 

Creating products that are climate-change friendly and making those products easy and rewarding for people is where success lies and that puts the onus on New Zealand companies. New Zealanders have told us that they don't think they can make any difference as an individual, but that companies can. And, developing products and services is not all that companies can contribute – we need their marketing nous too.

To get Kiwis to act we need to get better at marketing. We need to sell the dream not the nightmare of climate change. We need to find the positive narratives; to show the world how it could be, not what catastrophe looks like; to inspire and excite people with the possibilities; to own the problem and create solutions that fit into people’s lives, not demand that they change their lives. And we need to work with people’s biases, because although climate change should be a subject for rational thought and action, the human species that is contributing to the problem is cognitively lazy, emotional, and irrational.

We need to sell climate change mitigation to Kiwis because we can’t just expect that their love of the outdoors will translate into action. If we can use marketing skills to persuade people to buy bottled water surely we can crack the climate change action challenge.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

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