Climate change – is psychology up to the challenge?

Frederick Toates writes.

The recent discussions in The Psychologist on the importance of using psychology to help in solving problems of climate change call for an honest and open debate on the nature of our discipline. The issue of climate change and that of mental health are seldom far from the headlines, and it is time to ask whether psychology is up to the daunting task of offering the powerful insights needed.

It is sometimes said by politicians that diversity is society’s strength. Similarly, diversity is often suggested as desirable in psychology, its lack being regularly bemoaned by some; but do we all really welcome diversity? Surely psychology must by its nature be diverse, a unique subject made up of traditional scientific approaches situated alongside qualitative methods. On the one side, psychology borders sociology and on the other biology, with potentially valuable insights to each side.

Evidence mounts on the dynamic interaction between the social worlds and the biology of the brain. Yet this is hardly welcome news in all parts of our discipline, where a biology/social dichotomy, more at home in the 1920s, is still popular.

Positive psychology seems to make little acknowledgement of positive reinforcement, even though the school’s original declaration of independence could almost have been written by B.F. Skinner. Evolutionary psychology rarely acknowledges the role of brains in evolution, an objection brilliantly argued by the late Jaak Panksepp.

I suggest that one of the unfortunate hallmarks of psychology is to take processes and link them inextricably to schools of thought. Rival schools then dismiss not just the other school but the importance of the associated process. A good example of this is the principle of reinforcement, as advanced by, amongst others, Skinner; himself guilty of doing this. Surely there can be little doubt as to the centrality of this process to our lives, and yet I hear it dismissed out of hand as part of the rejection of behaviourism. Indeed, I would argue that if we wish to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change, we need to confront head-on the interaction between reinforcement and rule-governed determinants of behaviour. Sadly, as a reaction to behaviourism, historically cognitive psychology formed its mirror image.

A particularly toxic confusion of process and perspective rests in the notion of social construction. There can be little doubt that a strong element of social construction lies in our use of language. In my own research area, I confront this every day. Sometimes bad-tempered arguments rage over the meaning of terms such as ‘drug’, ‘disease’ and ‘addiction’, e.g. on whether sexual addiction really exists. These rows arise because it is implicitly assumed by many that such terms have been (can be?) defined in a way divorced from the intention of the speaker. Yet the tragedy here is that those psychologists most involved in discussing the social construction of language seem intent on adopting a fortress mentality, drawing an impermeable wall around themselves, having their own exclusive journals and conferences, seemingly with the intention of keeping others out.

Time is too short.

Professor Frederick Toates
Open University

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