Advancing Psychology’s Role in Global Climate Change Discussion

Wooster Professor of Psychology Susan Clayton and colleagues describe discipline’s contributions

21 July, 2015 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Psychology has an important role to play in the study of global climate change, and Susan Clayton is doing her best to spread the word.

As the lead author of two recently published papers, Clayton, Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology and professor of environmental studies at The College of Wooster, makes a strong case for the value of psychology in learning about, and responding to, this emotionally charged and often controversial topic.

“What we try to do in both papers is lay out the ways in which psychological research has been relevant and could be better represented,” says Clayton. “Psychology is critical to understanding cognitive and emotional human tendencies and how they affect human behavior in this area. It’s really about informing, prompting, and encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations between psychologists and other scientists.”

Writing for the journal Nature Climate Change, Clayton and her colleagues argue that “human behavior is integral not only in causing global climate change but also in responding and adapting to it.” In the article, titled, “Psychology and Global Climate Change,” Clayton says that psychological research should inform efforts to address climate change in order to avoid misunderstandings about human behavior and motivations that can lead to ineffective or misguided policies. “We review three key research areas: describing human perceptions of climate change; understanding and changing individual and household behavior that drives climate change; and examining the human impacts of climate change and adaptation responses,” she says. “Although much has been learned in these areas, we suggest important directions for further research.

In the second article, titled “Expanding the Role for Psychology in Addressing Environmental Challenges” and published in the journal American Psychologist, Clayton and her associates assert that environmental challenges, though daunting, present an important area for psychologists to apply their knowledge. “Psychological theories, research methods, and interventions are essential for examining the questions about human impacts, tendencies, and capacities that are integral to constructing effective responses to these challenges,” say the authors, adding that “although a great deal of relevant research has been done, there is scope for psychologists to be more extensively involved.” Following a brief review of existing research, Clayton and her colleagues outline some important new directions, arguing that psychological research needs to expand beyond a traditional, theory-based and decontextualized approach to environmental issues to incorporate a contextualized or “place-based” approach and a willingness to collaborate in interdisciplinary research teams that focus on specific environmental problems.

Both papers resulted from a workshop funded by The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) two years ago in Annapolis, Md. The objective was to promote interdisciplinary collaboration on environmental issues. “Our belief is that psychology has more to contribute to the conversation about climate change than has been fully realized,” says Clayton. “We encourage psychologists to expand their engagement with important environmental issues through multiple research approaches in order to further their understanding of human behavior, contributions to human wellbeing, and relevance to other disciplines and to society.”