Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective

„Change is coming, whether you like it or not!” (G. Thunberg)

Denial from a contextual cognitive-behavioral perspective – The ABC of human behavior

Dipl.-Psych. Dr. Claudia China, psychological psychotherapist/supervisor cognitive-behavioral therapist

If there is only so much as the possibility that the predictions about climate change are at least partly true, meaning that us humans are destroying our living environment, that should be reason enough to preventively change our behavior.

Nevertheless, many people are apparently still not doing so at all or not sufficiently, which begs the question: why are intelligent people behaving so unreasonably?

In fact, irrational behavior and denial of existing risks are part of being human: we smoke, we drink alcohol, we eat too much, we move too little etc. Many religions have, at their core, the promise to cheat death, which means to deny one of life’s basic experiences: that we all must die. Using prayers and rituals, humans have been trying to influence a world coined by transience, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity since thousands of years. Human behavior is complex and can only be understood in personal context (Gifford & Hayes, 1999). Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider how we learn and what guides our behavior.

All feeling organisms share the pursuit of pleasant experiences and the avoidance of unpleasant ones. For this, it plays a role how immediately and regularly a consequence follows a behavior (Skinner, 1938). The hungry (hunger = antecedent = A) laboratory rat, who accidentally presses a button while exploring its environment (behavior = B) and consequently receives food (consequence = C) will afterwards press this button more often when it is hungry. After this experience, the button acquired a function for the rat that connects it with attractive sustenance (positive consequence = “reinforcer” C+).
The moody (A) smoker who smokes a cigarette (B) is reliably rewarded for smoking, because her mood immediately improves (C+). For this person, the toxic cigarette gained the function of eliciting pleasantly calming or stimulating sensations.

Quick consequences are very effective in guiding behavior. Against this background, the denial (B) of an alarming situation like the climate crisis (A) seems natural: we don’t have to expose ourselves to the unpleasant feeling of defenseless fear, or – maybe even worse – shame for our ignorance and our behavior (omission of a negative consequence = “reinforcer” C/-). When we get reinforced for our behavior, we tend to repeat it. This is normal.

But humans are capable of more: we don’t just learn through our own experiences, but also through communication of other people’s experiences and thoughts. Furthermore, through our language and thought (cf. Skinner, 1957), we can create arbitrary correlations and give completely new meanings to things that go far beyond our own experiences, or even oppose them (cf. Gross & Fox, 2009). We learn rules and often follow them even when they don’t apply. For instance, the first British settlers in Newfoundland cultivated the land like they were used to from home, because they were located at the same latitude and assumed the weather to be similar to home. Only after many bad harvests and deaths they learned that weather is not a function of latitude and that Newfoundland is in fact much colder than their native land (Kupperman, 1982). Not only was the latitude-rule not helpful, it also prevented appropriate behavior. We all tend to cling to previously learned rules (“I am too small and insignificant to have any impact. Surely, technological progress will deal with climate change.”).

It is hard to overcome habits (“Yes, drinking milk is bad, but coffee without milk just doesn’t taste good!”). Spontaneous thought- and decision-making-processes are especially error-prone, and consequently often very irrational (cf. Kahnemann, 2016). Social norms and the behavior of people around us play a big role in this. In a famous experiment, participants were brought to a room in which smoke started pouring in after a while. When people were alone, they left the room after noticing the smoke. When the subjects were accompanied by others who stayed idle, they decided to stay as well (Latane & Darley, 1969). As long as so many people react to Greta Thunberg’s “I want you to panic!” with observing calmness, it can be hard to behave differently.

However, language and thought can be very helpful when imagining how something will be in the future and how we will feel (cf. Hayes, Barnes-Holmes & Roche, 2001). Even though a visit to the dentist (A) may be uncomfortable and scary, we can let ourselves be treated (B), because we can imagine how attractive and pleasant a healthy set of teeth (C+) is in the long term. We can easily calm (C/-) our raging toddler at the checkout (A) if we buy him the chocolate he wants (B). But we can also feel the love for our child (C+) and be willing to get through the unpleasant situation, because it is better for our and our child’s future (C+). We can muster up the willingness to accept aversive experiences if we manage to be aware of our values (C+). Experiencing acting after our values as powerful positive consequences (C+) creates the energy we need to deal with uncomfortable truths like the climate crisis and change our currently comfortable, but, in the long run, harmful behavior.

Personal values are diverse, and it sometimes requires courage to become aware of them. When someone or something is valuable to me, I make myself vulnerable. For example, when I feel grateful for my environment, I feel the pain and sadness to see it in danger or already lost. Identifying and contacting one’s personal values is most likely to succeed in an environment coined by openness, respect and reciprocal appreciation, where everyone involved is willing to be touched and vulnerable. Friendly empathy with ourselves and others helps. Gratefulness (C+) that is felt and even observed in others makes people more ready to actively help (Algoe, Dwyer, Younge & Oveis, 2019).

To deal with our human tendency to deny the consequences of climate change, we first need continuing, deliberate consciousness: where are we led by comfortable, short-term consequences and deny harmful, but not immediately apparent consequences and our responsibility? Another T-Shirt (“Yes, it’s not good – but I don’t have time to wash every week.”), the coffee-to-go (“Yes, – but I didn’t manage to make coffee at home, and I need my morning coffee.”), the fancy, modern SUV (“Yes, – but the old VW-bus of those freaks consumes much more gas…”), etc. Realizing that everyone has those tendencies helps us to stay friendly and create positive and reinforcing conversation.

We also need the courage and willingness to become aware of our personal values and expose ourselves to the painful realization that our environment is in danger and possibly cannot be saved anymore. So, who and what really means a lot to us? What are we willing to advocate and maybe even make sacrifices for? I love my children; I want them to be able to live securely (C+). I value living with others in peace and support (C+). I am amazed by our brilliant ecosystems with their variety of organisms, animals and plants, and am happy when I experience their beauty (C+). I’m part of what we’re currently destroying. When I think about it, I am scared and sad and want to do what I can to conserve our environment (C+).

And we need the courage and willingness to not only feel responsible ourselves and behave accordingly, but to make it easier for others as well. We can work on questioning and changing social norms, and we can communicate in an appreciative and empathetic manner with others. Humans are born with the need to cooperate, already as a toddler they want to help (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009). It brings us joy to volunteer for what we love (C+). As social beings, we feel safer in a group (C+). Social support is a crucial protective factor for our health, especially in threatening situations (Ditzen & Heinrichs, 2007). At the same time there is the risk of being criticized by others and feel shame. The latter is extremely aversive for most people. This means that reproaches and imputations are rather counterproductive. “Us virtuous people against you ignorant ones” is not productive in personal contact.

Max Frisch aptly describes the contact with deniers: “One should hold out truth like a coat, in which the other person can slip in – not slap it around his head like a wet towel.”

In summary, looking at deniers from a cognitive-behavioral perspective, everything which helps people get in contact with their personal values and long-term consequences of their behavior is interesting, for example:

  • Being authentic and appreciative in conversation. Everyone has a right to their own point of view and emotions.
  • Curiously listening to the other person’s perspective and finding out, what is important to them. In the end, most people are fairly similar in what they would like to have written on their tombstone. “X always understood how to lead a comfortable life and had a nice car” surely is not among it, but “X took loving care of her family” or “X fought relentlessly to make or world worth living” sounds better.”
  • Offer social support, change social norms and celebrate successes. Taking part in a Fridays for Future demo feels good (C+). Way above 4000 signers at Psy4F feels very good (C++)!


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