This post began as a research “memo” (written to myself as an entry in a reflective PhD journal) entitled “on psychological plausibility”. I was prompted to write it by a couple of pieces written by David Roberts on current debates about 100% renewable electricity and the feasibility of such goals (see link, link) and other reading I was concurrently doing on human psychology. Roberts is a writer focused on energy politics and climate change responses who writes for Vox (and formerly wrote for Grist for years). He is passionate about addressing climate change, a self-described “climate hawk”, and is a very well informed writer worth reading. He’s basically spent over a decade deep diving on a single issue.
In the first piece, he writes:
Clean-energy enthusiasts frequently claim that we can go bigger, that it’s possible for the whole world to run on renewables — we merely lack the “political will.” So, is it true? Do we know how get to an all-renewables system? Not yet. Not really.
You also frequently hear such claims in Australia. However, if someone was to make Roberts basic points in the Australian policy context – arguing that transitions to an all-renewables system requires addressing numerous major challenges (e.g. those associated with intermittency or the economics of such transitions), remains incompletely understood, and is uncertain – they’re likely to be swiftly denounced by many environmentalists and climate campaigners as being part of the fossil fuel lobby or alleged to be a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party. I know this from bitter personal experience.
The second piece, which reviews recently published review papers on transitions to 100% renewable electricity systems, includes “a plea for open minds and flexibility”. He notes that:
To cut to the chase: The models that optimize for the lowest-cost path to zero carbon electricity — and do not rule out nuclear and CCS [carbon capture and storage] a priori — generally find that it is cheaper to get there with than without them… [i.e. with nuclear and CCS]. This is particularly true above 60 or 80 percent decarbonization, when the costs of the renewables-only option rise sharply.
Later in the piece he makes the following associated argument:
Above all, the haziness of the long-term view argues for humility on all sides. There’s much we do not yet know and cannot possibly anticipate, so it’s probably best for everyone to keep an open mind, support a range of bet-hedging experiments and initiatives, and maintain a healthy allergy to dogma.
Additionally, it needs to be noted that few people realise electricity is a small proportion of total energy use and an associated proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, in the United States electricity is only 21% of final energy use and globally it’s 18% (Heinberg & Fridley 2016). Moving towards 100% renewable energy use has additional challenges, unknowns, and complexities (than a transition to renewable electricity). Decarbonisation of energy and other action to eliminate other sources of greenhouse gases requires decarbonising transport, decarbonisation of food production and food consumption, decarbonisation of household energy use (e.g. decarbonising heating, cooking, etc.), zero-carbon materials and materials production (e.g. concrete and steel production), reduced deforestation, and so on.
Concurrently I was reading a book by psychologist Richard Crisp entitled The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind and reviewing some of my case study findings. Whilst The Social Brain addresses a very different topic – cultural diversity, the psychology of prejudice, and the effects of diversity – Crisp discusses cognitive barriers relevant to the thinking Roberts is calling for and barriers to the cognitive flexibility and creativity that is likely to be required to successful deal with climate change. Crisp argues that the human brain is a “prediction machine” which seeks to build and maintain a predictable model of the world. He details the findings of experiments and real-life cases which suggest that, psychologically, we have “an insatiable need for certainty” (p.23) and points to related cognitive mechanisms which minimise (perceived) ambiguity and uncertainty – in stark contrast with what Roberts and others call for. Crisp details related psychological drives such as maintaining stability, structure and security.
Crisp further asserts that “in the end the brain will settle for an answer, any answer, that removes uncertainty. Accuracy plays second fiddle to the need to be certain” (p.21).
I wrote the following question on a blank page at the back of Crisp’s book: what does this mean for the psychological plausibility of prospective exercises and their functions?
Many practitioners and scholars/writers advocate the use of such practices to encourage people to embrace uncertainty (or better recognise it/work with it), to have a more “open” sense of the future (e.g. see Ramirez & Wilkinson, 2016), accept the ambiguity of real-world situations and develop greater flexibility to deal with this, and so on. Such aims conflict with basic human psychology as detailed by psychologists. For instance, Crisp details the findings of range of experiments and other studies which he convincingly argues demonstrates that the human brain is a certainty-seeking “cognitive miser” which employs a range of short-cuts and unconscious processes to avoid ambiguity and reduce uncertainty.
I also wrote at the back of Crisp’s book that the findings of psychological studies may help to explain tendencies to embrace dogmas, and to dig-in during debates, rather than have (as Roberts calls for) “open minds and flexibility”. Cognitively it appears to be more natural and much more comfortable to embrace a chosen dogma, rather than embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.
One is therefore tempted to conclude that, due to such cognitive barriers, prospective exercises are psychologically implausible (in particular, those with commonly aspired to goals).
Related aspects of human cognition also help to explain some of the findings of my case study research. I found that participation in the prospective exercises I studied tended to reinforce actors existing views and beliefs and, linked with this, the outputs tended to be used to help justify existing positions. Case evidence suggested that belief reinforcement, and an associated strengthening of expectations, was a more common outcome than a more “open” sense of the future and recognition of ambiguity.
A related possible conclusion is that the functions of such practices needs to be reconceptualised in ways that are more consistent with human psychology and other social scientific research.
A further possible conclusion is that the cognitive barriers identified by scientists (or the basic “drives” of the human psyche as Crisp puts it) actually help to make the case for why prospective exercises can be important, given the psychological tendencies of human beings. However, the kicker is that these very same tendencies also make such exercises much more difficult that is commonly acknowledged. These are key conclusions I’m more inclined to reach.
Of course, such psychological plausibility issues are contingent on the goals of such exercises. For example, if the main desired function is simply to provide “ammunition” for use in political campaigns then perhaps it’s largely a non-issue because the goal then is simply to persuade others (rather than seek the truth of the matter). However, if the exercise aims to enable better informed policy-making, and/or aims to enable greater cognitive flexibility and associated creative action, then it becomes an issue. Furthermore, as I concluded in the case study research I’m currently working on (for my PhD), when actors have strongly-held views that don’t adequately recognise uncertainty this can be a major barrier to the cognitive flexibility and creativity needed for innovation. Designing interventions that can reliably promote such cognitive flexibility and thereby help to enable effective action is a major challenge needing greater attention.
Crisp, R. 2015, The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind, Robinson, London, UK.
Heinberg, R. & Fridley, D. 2016, Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy, Island Press.
Ramirez, R. & Wilkinson, A. 2016, Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom
Further recommended reading:
Mercier, H. & Sperber, D. 2017, The Enigma of Reason, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.