Interview with Professor Geoff Beattie

TRANSCRIPT of nterview with Professor Geoff Beattie, of the School of Psychological Sciences at Manchester University. ( 9th March 2012). Conducted by Laurence Menhinick.

Professor Beattie, author of “ Why Aren’t we Saving the Planet?” (2011)

Could you explain to us how you came to do this research? What were the main questions you were trying to answer?

As a psychologist, I am fascinated by the notion that human beings don’t know themselves as much as they think, and I was fascinated by the notion that a lot of people ( big retailers, government through DEFRA ) thought they could read people’s minds. To me that was a bit of a challenge because everyone was saying that they all had the solutions to the whole climate change issue, that the scientific evidence seemed pretty convincing and a lot of the public say they get the message but don’t do what they say. That raises a lot of interesting psychological challenges: why is that? Why aren’t we all cycling? Why aren’t we all selling our cars? Why aren’t we buying low carbon footprint products in supermarket? If you read DEFRA reports, they say you have to take into consideration people’s ability to change and willingness to change, to me that is like mind-reading and I wasn’t sure that was correct. Do we even know what our fundamental attitudes are? So much we know about healthy eating, obesity, about climate change depends on us reporting what we intend to do, the question is how does the human mind work?

As I have said at the conference [Consumption: A Multi-disciplinary Point of View, SCI Manchester 8-9 March 2012] “There are people who think they can read minds, but it’s more difficult than they think because human beings don’t have a mind. They have two.” Some aspect of behaviour are not conscious and reflective, they are automatic and impulsive. And that is what the book is an exploration of, of this other system. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate calls them system one and system two, and one system is reflective and conscious and the other is automatic and I suppose what I want to do is pull out the relationships between these two systems.

What I am interested in is this notion of what happens to the other whole system that does not really respond? The book is about trying to measure the implicit attitudes, and I am using a system called the Implicit Association Test, which is an association task. We don’t actually know what is going on – Similarly, I have just finished a book on attitudes to race coming out in August called “Our Racist Heart?” it is an exploration of unconscious prejudices, and what we know about the racism literature is that people say they do not discriminate on basis of race in any way but if you measure their implicit attitude they seem to have strong implicit attitudes. We have the test coming up online soon for the public to do.

 

What the Planet book doesn’t give a good indicator of is what the absolute value is in society, but what it does tell us is that people are discrepant, they are conflicted. People say one thing but their implicit attitude seems to be at odds with it. You can also see it in the clips on hand gestures. What the discrepant behaviour and mismatch behaviour is telling us that there is a conflict within human beings. In the Planet book, what I am arguing is that conflict within human beings is important, therefore if we are going to do anything about climate change we have to start of with that assumption. Everyone is going to tell us how green they are. There are whole supermarket chains and political groups who said “ you just have to ask people, they want the information [ about carbon footprint], they are ready to change” but what I am saying is that it may be more complicated than that, and that is what I am exploring: the implications of the discrepancy.

Now if behaviour is automatic and not open to reflexion, how are you going to change it? There are a number of things you are going to have to do: start considering the concept of implicit attitude, and how do we change that? We know it can be done because if you look at the great alcohol and cigarette adverts in the 1950s and 1960s, they turned something cancerous into something glamorous and sexy. How? The answer is in understanding how to promote things implicitly. I have an article coming up in Nature Climate Change on this very issue: people put the carbon footprint information on cartons but we have done the eye tracking: it is obvious it doesn’t work, people are not looking at it. For example if you look at an Easter egg, you will look at the calorie content, and the fat content too, but the carbon footprint? People don’t look- partly because it is not clear what it means, and also because it “doesn’t mean anything personal and emotional to me” so it raises all sorts of challenges: how do you make it personal? Or emotional? How do you get it noticed in the first place? So we really need to think about the two systems, eventually you might want to target each system separately or motivating behavioural change by working on each differently. The whole business about rational persuasion will only be efficient for the rational system. It is not enough, you need to work on the automatic system as well.

What do you think the timescale would be then? To change an implicit behaviour must take a very long time?

It is interesting because some people have done it experimentally over a relatively short period of time, but they haven’t looked at the long term effects of it. So you can demonstrate an effect, but you are right, how can you make a big change? Now I have heard a clip from Melinda Gates [ Bill Gates’ wife] about their foundation and what she is saying is that they have learnt from Coca Cola. So regarding climate change we must learn from their tactics. It is true there will be people in the environmental movement who will not want to go down the route of strong marketing, but if that is what is required to change implicit values and it is for the common good, then why not think about it? And the timescale? Well a campaign must happen over a significant amount of time for that kind of level of change.

Yes I was wondering, since there has been a lot of research into marketing (because of the economical sides to this), at the end of the day if you can manipulate people through advertisement, probably similar techniques can be used here?

You can apply them to the environment but you have a good nested question there: “what is the financial benefit?” Economist would say that you would have to consider environmental products – how do you promote them? Do you make them more expensive or less expensive? Are they an expensive luxury brand? And promote them as such? They are worth the premium so you promote them like fair-trade or organic. Or do you make them cheaper and price the high carbon products higher? It is an interesting question – at the end of the day retailers will put the carbon footprint on the product but let the consumers make the choices – they will not remove products selectively. There are all sorts of philosophical, ethical, moral and economical dilemmas here. It is interesting for me as a psychologist. I am interested in how that competing information has been internalised and human beings have become weirdly conflicted as a result and are not in a position where they can admit to the conflict.

Most people think it is sensible, we have to be sustainable, we can’t consume everything, the Earth can’t be run down in a generation and a half – but nevertheless the minefield is that there are so many competing commercial interests involved. So I haven’t got any big solutions, but I have small solutions considering for instance – how can you give carbon labels the kind of emotional effects that nutrition and fat content has? It may not look like a big question but no-one really checked if it was effective- or if people were looking at carbon information. So we have been assuming information would be enough but obviously not.

Your research was based on a very small number of people, mainly students, how do we know that it may be representative of the general public?

I presented the results based on a tiny sample, I present results suggesting that the implicit /explicit are discrepant as I believe that it is universal, but I don’t believe it is representative of the whole population- You may say I rushed into publication, only because I wanted people to start thinking along those lines, but the beauty is that we have now an online version of the IAT and access to enormous database of shopping habits and we have the opportunity to get a sample of shoppers to fill the IAT – so we will be able to link those two things up.

 

Will anyone be able to just have a go themselves?

Yes we are working on the ethics proposal. I love the idea of people being able to go online and checking out their implicit attitude to the environment.

 

My consideration is also about cultural differences from one country to another, or within countries, cities, I just want to know who this is representative of.

 

Yes, in the past year I have also been trying to understand the enormous variation in cultural value, for instance I went to Newcastle in Australia and to the US to try and run similar tests there. Let’s see how it translates there. But if you are going to think about behavioural change and changing attitudes, you have to take into consideration this weird implicit system which governs much of our every day action especially when we are under stress or tired.

In your book I was surprised that you included yourself in the study. Is this usual in psychology?

I am aware of that – I have written autobiographical novels and academic papers and the two worlds were completely separate, but the Planet book was where it all started to collide and I wanted to do so, and the [new] “Our Racist Heart?” book, even more so. I am interested in the issue of the divided self and I didn’t want to keep myself out of the loop. When it comes to the environment it looks like I fall within the same group as the “green fakers”.

Well, I want to know what you have changed in your personal behaviour ?

In the Planet book it was almost as if I was putting myself forward as a problem case, and if you can change me you can change a lot (of others). I am much more sensitive to carbon footprint than I was. But on the other hand if I can crack the problem of me I can crack the problem of anyone – I am always discounting because “I am too busy to do this” or unfortunately “I must fly to X”– you also have academics who see themselves as separate but I don’t think so I like to reflect on the process that shape me and I don’t want to lose sight of that. In the foreseeable future I will keep putting myself in again.

I am interested in a group you labelled “green fakers”. Could you tell us a little more about who they are, and can we change them?

They are a group of people who explicitly say they care hugely about the environment and when we measure them implicit attitude it doesn’t seem to be the case; the two things don’t converge. These are conflicted individuals – It seems to me that regarding the environmental change issue they are the interesting people – If you think of all the surveys that DEFRA have done trying to do a segmentation analysis looking at explicit attitudes, I think one next step might be if to do an analysis of what social groups they connect to, because there will also be people who really don’t care either way.

They may be aware that their behaviour doesn’t match what they say but I think what is interesting is how they process that information. [this is also analysed in the Racism book to come, so there is evidence that ] they are trying to persuade themselves. It is not just excuses and justifications about why we don’t do things, “ I’ve got to fly, sorry” for instance, it is more about the way we process this information in our everyday lives.

There will be a million places to look at concerning the way they process information. One thing we did recently, is look at environmental messages. I did a little piece with film clips from Al Gore’s “ An Inconvenient Truth.”. And we looked at people whose implicit attitudes are at odds with their explicit attitudes, and what is interesting is that they don’t look at the messages in the same way. If you look at where they are looking for the first 200 milliseconds, they are not looking at the clip – they are managing to ignore the message. This again has never been looked at before- it would be interesting to understand it. The psychology of the green faker, the conflicts within the individual seem to be at the core of the whole issue. That gives us a starting point. It is not a case of “people don’t care about the environment” it is more than that, people say they care- but at some automatic level they don’t.

 

Going back to the example you give of your childhood and ingrained behaviour – if you have to go back so far to make an impact on people’s life and relating it to the Al Gore clips, how do you make long-term changes?

It’s a good point, looking at brand loyalties in families, you can trace it to four generations, or things you grew up with, it has special meaning, so prejudice and bias are ingrained pretty early on– with the Al Gore clips, my guess is that the impact is not very long at all. But on the other hand I know from attitude to seatbelts, or smoking that it is possible to influence it.

Are you going to work on follow-ups ? Any more environmental studies you will do?

Yes relating to behaviour there are the online IAT coming up .

Also I am thinking about a book on communication about environmental issues– how can we maximise that? I’m interested in the risk perception, how to communicate risk more effectively, and how we frame communication. Also more research in the divided self within human being and I want to look at biodiversity too.

What I want to do is face up to the big issues really.

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