Are we too selfish to save the planet?
Are humans naturally inclined to act selfishly, or can we learn to be more altruistic and work together for the good of future generations?
It’s true we have some selfish tendencies – we’re highly motivated to seek out personal pleasure, and to protect and support our own people, be that family or a larger ‘in-group’. But we’ve also evolved to cooperate, and many people have strong instincts to be altruistic.
Part of the challenge for environmental campaigners is the scale and apparent remoteness of the climate crisis. It’s not that we’re too selfish to save the planet, but rather our psychological makeup means that we find it harder to empathise with the needs of thousands of people far away than with a single person in front of us. For survival reasons, we also have a strong tendency to prioritise immediate pressing concerns as opposed to problems in the future that we can’t see.
The good news is that being more aware of our psychology offers up plenty of ways to galvanise people into collective action to help address climate change.
For instance, we’re influenced by other people’s behaviour and what seems to be ‘normal’. By spreading the word that more people are recycling or avoiding using petrol cars, this will encourage others to do the same.
Likewise, recognising our bias for local and immediate concerns suggests campaigns will be more effective if they convey the urgency of the climate crisis, including its likely imminent adverse effects on our friends and family.
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.