Hiding the Social beneath Climate Change’s Rule of Thumb

The cognitive heuristic behaviour model has become very prevalent in the social science of public responses to climate change (Weber, 2006; Mooney, 2011: Biegler, 2012). This model has been inspired by the ideas of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist much lauded in the sphere of social science (Burkeman, 2011). His research has been based on identifying various reaction tendencies in how humans judge or problem-solve through the application of practical shortcuts or rules of thumb referred to as heuristics. These heuristics draw upon a variety of cognitive biases. Weber (2006) describes the heuristic of the “finite pool of worry” bias where people are deemed to limit their worries to a minimum amount of threats (p: 116). The model argues that when other threats, such as terrorism, become more salient people tend to neglect their fears concerning climate change (ibid).

Some of these cognitive biases offer useful descriptions of decision-making and judgement: most notably “confirmation bias” wherein people exhibit the “tendency to overemphasise anything that confirms what [they] already believe” (Douglas, 2011). Regarding climate change, the confirmation bias is exhibited when contrarians visit websites that only support the contrarian position or by “cherry-picking” supportive data such as viewing temperature declines during short time-periods as proof against global warming (Mooney, 2011).

Although heuristic models step beyond the ideas of the rational calculating person, they  often reproduce a similar uncritical biological determinism that overlooks the role of society. While the literature recognises that such heuristics can develop out of experience through “trial and error” (Douglas, 2011) advocates of the model often neglect this more socially sensitive genesis in favour of an evolutionary biological origin. Many view human biases as having been hard-wired in the brain as a result of evolutionary development (Winter and Koger, 2004: 5) and often as part of “fight-or-flight reflexes” (Gardner, 2008; Biegler, 2012). They generally support this explanation through the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. Starting with the premise of hunter-gatherer genetic leftovers or hard-wiring as explanation for responsiveness, they then invent or generalise some ancient hunter-gatherer recurrence to support specific claims about how we operate (Biegler, 2012; Camakaris, 2012). For some it seems the miniscule nature of civilisation’s 12,000 years on earth in comparison to the vast period spent in the Stone Age is treated as concrete proof that evolution has anachronistically locked the reflexes of our brain (Gardner, 2008; Camakaris, 2012). This evolutionary hard-wiring emphasis neglects how these reflexes might be influenced by socially and culturally induced dispositions (Bourdieu, 2005: 247).

Essentially the inherent weakness in this approach is the rendering of society as the ‘forgotten other’. The evolutionary psychology explanations and heuristic models often obliterate the role of societal contexts by standardising individual psychologies; over-emphasising ancient pre-civilisation legacies and selfish gene survival strategies. This nullifies the roles of class, institutions, infrastructure, social structure and community and thereby rendering invisible options for societal change. Therefore it is little wonder that the rigid views on human behaviour promoted by heuristic models and evolutionary psychology seem at least partially responsible for the sense of hopelessness found in the writings of some advocates, scientists and academics (e.g. Hagens, 2010). Gibbons (2011) views behavioural change as largely trapped by the supposedly self-interested survival predispositions of our “reptilian brain” (Rees, 2010).(1) The scientist Lovelock (2009) harbours obvious views on a human nature evolving too slowly for to respond sufficiently to the ecological crisis (p: 80), adding to the overwhelming bleakness of his future climate change imaginary (Vince, 2009b).

Potentially the rigid views on human behaviour promoted by heuristic models and evolutionary psychology will play a potent role in influencing climate change debates in the years to come. This is especially so now that rational choice or conscious calculation explanations are so easily exposed. Bourdieu recognised how the dominance of a particular vision of the world is supported by the close fit between objective structures and cognitive structures in order to conceal its arbitrariness: e.g., gender domination is aided by the distinctions between male/female. There is much in these heuristics and evolutionary psychology theories that is likely to be a close fit to the objective and cognitive structures of elite players in decarbonisation. High-ranking environmentalists, policy-makers, and especially the array of geoscientists schooled in the art of studying the material world will likely see legitimacy in the scientificity (apparent rather than actual science) of the Darwinian-backed hard materiality of reptilian brain, hardwiring and dopamine receptor type explanations.


1. Although Rees describes a co-evolutionary relationship between culture and biologically determined behaviour – calling for a rewriting of the cultural narrative away from destructive economic growth and towards sustainable equality – the meme effect of reptilian brain itself is potential fodder for promoting ideas of an immutable humanity.


Biegler P (2012) How we evolved to reject climate science. The Conversation [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.edu.au/how-we-evolved-to-reject-climate-science-10711 [Accessed 21/04/2013].
Bourdieu P (2005) The Social Structures of the Economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Burkeman O (2011) Daniel Kahneman: ‘We’re beautiful devices’. The Guardian [Online]. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/nov/14/daniel-kahneman-psychologist [Accessed 12/03/2012].
Camakaris H (2012) Don’t trust your Stone Age brain: it’s unsustainable The Conversation [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.com/dont-trust-your-stone-age-brain-its-unsustainable-9075 [Accessed 21/04/2013].
Douglas K (2011) Decision time: How subtle forces shape your choices New Scientist, 2838.
Gardner D (2008) Risk. London: Virgin Books Limited.
Gibbons J (2011) The decline and fall of the Human Empire. ThinkorSwim.ie [Online]. Available at: http://www.thinkorswim.ie/index.php/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-human-empire/.
Hagens N (2010) The Psychological Roots of Resource Overconsumption. In: Douthwaite R & Fallon G (eds.) Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risks of economic collapse Dublin: Feasta,
Lovelock J (2009) The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. New York: Basic Books.
Mooney C (2011) The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones, May/June
Rees W (2010) Whats blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial. Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy [Online], 6. Available at: http://sspp.proquest.com/archives/vol6iss2/1001-012.rees.html [Accessed 02/02/2014].
Vince G (2009) One last chance to save mankind New Scientist (2692).
Weber E U (2006) Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: why global warming does not scare us (yet) Climatic Change 77: 103-120.
Winter D D N, Koger S M (2004) The Psychology of Environmental Problems. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s