Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Climate change helplessness

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Climate change helplessness:
How does learned helplessness impact motivation to engage in behaviours to limit climate change?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1: Cartoon representing Earth on fire, an interpretation of the effects of climate change (also referred to as global arming[spelling?])

Climate change is a global phenomenon, which is becoming increasingly present in the conscious of people all over the world, and its detrimental effects on out environment are beginning to show. However, despite climate change becoming ever-present in our lives, there is still a large amount of people that do not engage in behaviours to help reduce climate change[factual?]. The purpose of this book chapter is to help the reader understand what climate change is and the motivational theories that lead to people not engaging in climate change limiting behaviours.

What is climate change?[edit | edit source]

So what is climate change? According to the Australian Academy of Science (2021), climate change is “..a change in the pattern of weather, and related changes in oceans, land surfaces and ice sheets, occurring over time scales of decades or longer…”(p.g.1). It is as simple as that! Climate change is a change in the earth's climate, characterised by changes in weather due to the warming of the earth's atmosphere (ACS, 2021). This warming leads to drastic changes in temperatures (whether this be extra hot or extra cold), ice caps melting, oceans to rise and overall effect the functioning and structure of our planet. Climate change is an extremely large scale problem, so there’s no way people were the cause of this! Right? Unfortunately ... wrong.

What causes climate change?[edit | edit source]

Climate change is caused by both natural and human interference, however it is being accelerated by the latter[factual?]. Human generated gases, like methane and nitrous oxide, caused from things like excess farming and pollution, are increasing the greenhouse gas emissions into the earth's atmosphere, and thus driving up the temperature of our globe and causing adverse affects on our planet's structure and functioning, to a point where life on earth will become very difficult for humans[factual?]. Sounds quite scary, doesn’t it? Especially when considering that humans are beginning to feel the effects of climate change, and can predict what more adverse changes are in store in the very near future. Despite this, there are several people who do not partake in climate change reduction behaviours, like recycling and sustainable consumption etc.

Behaviours that reduce climate change[edit | edit source]

At Home At Work Political
Reduce waste especially single-use plastic Print documents only when needed Start conversations with friends and family about climate change
Use green energy sources where possible and buy efficient appliances Use public transport to commute if possible Purchase carbon offsets when travelling by air
Turn off lights and appliances when not in use Recycle paper waste Voice concerns to elected officials
Reduce water and food waste Become a green ambassador within your workplace Vote for parties that have policies to decrease carbon emissions

Theoretical basis[edit | edit source]

So, why do some people refuse to believe that their actions can help to reduce the effects of climate change? In order to find that out, one needs to look at psychological theories of motivation and behaviour. One theory that sticks out is learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness[edit | edit source]

Learned helplessness is a theory coined by psychologist, Martin Seligman in 1965. Seligman was originally researching the theory of classical conditioning. He had dogs whom he separated into separate enclosures, and would administer light electric shocks to the dogs after ringing a bell, to which the dogs would react to, even after hearing the bell but not experiencing a shock, just like the findings of Ivan Pavlov. For the second part of his research, Seligman placed the dogs on one side of an enclosure, with a fence in the middle. Seligman then administered more shocks to the dogs and expected that they would jump over the fence to escape. However this is not what occurred, but rather the dogs did not move after receiving the shock. Seligman concluded that the dogs had learned from the first part of the experiment that after receiving a shock there was nothing they could do, and thus the theory of learned helplessness was found. What this shows is that when put in a negative situation, if the subject is not able to initially solve or avoid the situation, they will come to learn that there is no way out (Seligman,1972). See case study example 1 to help understand this theory.

Case study example 1[edit | edit source]

Betsy is a student in high school. She received some marks back from a maths test where she did quite poorly. Betsy has never really excelled at maths but these poor marks were quite a surprise to her, especially because she studied for it too. Now whenever Betsy has maths test coming up she says things like ‘I won’t do well on it anyway, I’m terrible at maths’. Betsy’s friends go to a study group together to help with their maths homework, but Betsy doesn’t go. Her excuse is that it won’t help her as she is no good at maths. Betsy's marks in maths stay quite low all through her schooling. Even as an adult, Betsy avoids situations that might require her to use her maths skills, as she still claims to be terrible at maths.

Global implications[edit | edit source]

So, how does learned helplessness impact motivation to engage in behaviours to limit climate change? Now that we have the knowledge of climate change and the theory of learned helplessness, let’s try to answer this question.

Presentation of Information[edit | edit source]

One of the reasons that people do not engage in behaviours to limit climate change is due to the presentation of information. As outlined by Rooney-Varga, Sterman, Fracassi, Franck, Kapmeier, Kurker, Johnston, Jones, & Rath in 2018, people are aware of the existence of climate change but simply do not understand the consequences of it, and how it relates to them as individuals. Lots of data that is presented in the media about climate change is very scientific, and not accessible or understandable to a large majority of the world population (Rooney-Varga et. al., 2018). People will hear or read something about climate change and not understand it, and will then assume that anything about climate change is out of their intellectual reach. Furthermore, information about climate change is often presented using very large scale examples, and thus leading people to assume that their individual actions are too small to affect the rest of the world (Rooney-Varga et. al., 2018). The way the information is presented leads people to believe that they are not able to understand climate change, and that their actions are small to really help reduce the effects of climate change, and thus this learned helplessness impacts their motivation to engage in behaviours to limit climate change.

Case study example 2[edit | edit source]

In 2018, Rooney-Varga, Sterman, Fracassi, Franck, Kapmeier, Kurker, Johnston, Jones, & Rath conducted an experiment where their subjects partook in a role play. They had participants pretend that they were delegates of the United Nations, each representing a different country. The group had to come together for a meeting to discuss what efforts each ‘country’ would take to help reduce climate change, while keeping in mind the goals of the other delegates and the counter they are representing. What the subjects gained from this experience was clear knowledge of climate change, and its causes and impacts, greater feelings of urgency and hope to reduce climate change, a desire to learn more about climate change as well.

What this case study shows is that when climate change is demystified, and people are able to discuss it with one another openly, it creates a safe and understanding environment for people to discuss their opinions and voice their concerns. It also encourages them to ask questions and piques interest for further discussions. This spreading of informed knowledge is vital to getting the message about climate change into the world, and reducing the feelings of helplessness amongst individuals, and encourage them to take part in climate change reduction behaviours.

Moralisation[edit | edit source]

Moralisation is a concept that outlines how individuals perceive their behaviours to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and can aid individuals in making decisions, based on how the outcome will impact themselves and others (Salomon, Preston & Tennenbaum, 2017). In terms of learned helplessness and climate change, individuals who do not partake in behaviours to limit climate change could have perceived that these behaviours have little to no moral value, and hence why they feel helpless to partake in these behaviours (Salomon, Preston & Tannenbaum, 2017). Or to put it more simply, individuals do not care or truly understand the impact that their actions have on other people in terms of climate change, or perhaps believe that inaction only effects the self. The helplessness that is learned in this instance is cause by the individual believing that their actions have no impact, and therefore inaction is morally okay as apposed to acting and doing the wrong thing, when in fact inaction is just as bad when it comes to climate change behaviours as doing a conscious bad action. What this suggests is that the idea of climate change action becoming a moral issue for individuals could in fact increase their desire to partake in climate change reduction behaviours. If individuals are able to perceive the notion of inaction when it comes to climate change reduction behaviours a morally incorrect, perhaps they will instead engage in behaviours to help reduce climate change.

Perceived threat[edit | edit source]

Perceived threat is another factor of learned helplessness that explains peels[spelling?] lack of motivation to engage in climate change limiting behaviours. Perceived threat is when an individual assess a situation to see the likelihood of something dangerous affecting them, and how bad this affect will be if it does (Feldman & Stenner, 1997). Nowadays, people are very aware of climate change, but believe that it does not or will not affect them individually (Semenza, Ploubidis & George, 2011). Even though the effects of climate change are beginning to be felt by people all over the world now, many older generations have perceived this threat as something that they will not have to deal with, and thus do not partake in climate change limiting behaviours (Semenza, Ploubidis & George, 2011). This is evidenced often in individuals in power, as they are often members of older generations, they do not feel the need to enforce or encourage these beneficial behaviours, as by the time climate change becomes an even more significant issue, they will be out of power, and thus will not be their problem to deal with (Semenza, Ploubidis & George, 2011). However it seems that younger generations have a very high level of threat perceived from climate change, and are more likely to partake in behaviours to limit climate change, as they are motivated by fear and can see that climate change will have severe impacts in their futures (Semenza, Ploubidis & George, 2011). However, Sparks, Jessop, Chapman & Holmes conducted an experiment in 2010, where they had their subjects recite self affirmations to assess if it would change their thinking towards climate change. They found that participants were more likely to partake in climate change limiting behaviours after completing the self affirmations, as they were able to relate more to the issues when thinking about it individually, and that their level of perceived threat was heightened as they were envisioning themselves in different situations (Sparks, Jessop, Chapman & Holmes, 2010).

Groupthink[edit | edit source]

Another factor of learned helplessness that can lead to individuals choosing not to partake in climate change reduction behaviours is group think. Groupthink is a way of “…thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” (Janis, 2008, p.g. 237). Basically what this means is that when an individual is part of group, they often take on the thoughts and opinions of this group. In terms of learned helplessness and climate change, if an individual is surrounded by people who do not partake in climate change reduction behaviours, they are likely to take on this mindset as well, and believe that they can not change or defer from this mindset for fear of being rejected from the group (Bury, Wenzel & Woodyatt, 2020). In this instance, the individual takes on the learned helplessness from the group, and thinks that they will not be able to come up with their own conclusions as a result of this. On a more positive note however, Bury, Wenzel & Woodyatt (2020) highlight that being a part of a group that does acknowledge climate change and does not have a sense of learned helplessness surrounding it can encourage individuals join this group to take on a mindset where they do partake in climate change reduction behaviours.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Climate change is a massive global issue that is is becoming increasingly significant in this modern world. And yet with this rapidly approaching deadline of time to change before the world changes before humankind, people still fail to engage in climate change reduction behaviours. And in a world of technology and hat[spelling?] appears to be endless access to information, one would think that people would be more willing to learn about climate change and how they can help to reduce it.

What people do not seem to realise is that they can in fact reduce climate change. The sheer scale of its potential detrimental affects are extremely daunting, and often seem out of reach, but the narrative needs to be changed. Climate change helplessness comes from people thinking that the information is too confusing, that their individual actions will not count towards anything, that the threat of climate change poses on their future is not real and that people around them all feel this way too. But if this pattern of thinking changed then perhaps people will begin to act differently as well. Motivating people to get on the right track is not difficult, if they have access to information that is more relatable to their everyday lives, and see how even the simplest of actions can aid in reducing climate change then perhaps they will. If they can come to understand that their inaction is not just affecting them, but affecting millions of people around them then perhaps they will rethink their morals. If they are able to perceive that the threat is very real, and already upon them that perhaps that fear and hope will drive their motivation. And if everyone begins to think differently, then the normal groupthink agenda will be to partake in climate change rather than to avoid it. Basically, people need to realise the potential they have to create change, and realise that they are not helpless beings in their own lives, but that they can change and influence their future and the future of humanity. Hoping is part of human nature, so hoping is what is needed to reverse the wrongdoings that have been inflicted on this planet for too long, and hoping that it will not be too little too late.

See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Academy of Science. 2021. What is climate change?. [online] Available at: <>

Bury, S. M., Wenzel, M., & Woodyatt, L. (2020). Against the odds: Hope as an antecedent of support for climate change action. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 59(2), 289–310.

Feldman, S., & Stenner, K. (1997). Perceived threat and authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 18(4), 741-770.

Janis, I. L. (2008). Groupthink. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 36(1), 36.

Rooney-Varga, J. N., Sterman, J. D., Fracassi, E., Franck, T., Kapmeier, F., Kurker, V., Johnston, E., Jones, A. P., & Rath, K. (2018). Combining role-play with interactive simulation to motivate informed climate action: Evidence from the World Climate simulation. PloS One, 13(8), e0202877.

Salomon, E., Preston, J. L., & Tannenbaum, M. B. (2017). Climate change helplessness and the (de)moralization of individual energy behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 23(1), 15–28.

Seligman, M.E., Learned helplessness. Annual review of medicine, 1972. 23(1): p. 407-412. DOI: 10.1146

Semenza, J. C., Ploubidis, G. B., & George, L. A. (2011). Climate change and climate variability: personal motivation for adaptation and mitigation. Environmental Health : A Global Access Science Source, 10, (46).

Sparks, P., Jessop, D. C., Chapman, J., & Holmes, K. (2010). Pro-environmental actions, climate change, and defensiveness: do self-affirmations make a difference to people’s motives and beliefs about making a difference? The British Journal of Social Psychology, 49(Pt 3), 553–568.


External Links[edit | edit source]

[Use sentence casing. Use bullet points. Use alphabetical order]

What is Climate Change? (Australian Academy of Science, 2021)

Learned Helplessness Explained (Boyd, 2021)

Believe you can stop climate change and you will(University of Warwick, 2017)

How you can stop Climate Change (Grantham Institute, 2019)

What to know about Climate Change Anxiety (Huizen, 2019)