Climate Change as a Behaviorist Views It


Climate change is a popular subject of research. Yet, little is known about the behavioral aspects of environmental protection. The purpose of this synthesis paper is to reconceptualize climate change as a behavioral problem. Behaviorism is used to explain the complexity of climate change and propose relevant solutions to the problem. The paper uses Watson's views on behaviorism to reconsider the key dimensions of climate change. The choice of Watson's behaviorism is justified by the fact that he perceived behavioral psychology as an effective driver behind social change. Behavioral solutions are proposed to stop environmental degradation and stimulate positive changes in human behaviors. Limitations of behaviorism in the context of climate change are discussed. 


Climate Change as a Behaviorist Views It

Climate change is a recurrent topic in scholarly literature and empirical research. Yet, it rarely becomes a valid object of psychological or behavioral analysis. Climate change and human physiology are intricately related. From the standpoint of behaviorism most, if not all, human behaviors have some physiology under them. Climate change results in a massive restructuring of the surrounding reality, which inevitably affects the way humans behave in routine situations. The impacts of climate change on human physiology and behaviors can be described as a sequence of two gaps. The first gap is between the moment the human organism encounters a change in the environment and the moment it responds to it. The second gap is between the moment the human organism experiences change and the moment this change manifests in observable behaviors. It is possible to assume that climate change will influence the human physiology underlying observable behaviors. It will create an entirely new set of stimuli and incentives, which will alter the typical reactions to the environment among humans.

Climate change is expected to have considerable impacts on internal and external human psychology and physiology, but the nature and scope of these impacts has yet to be explored. On the one hand, the new environmental conditions will give rise to adverse events such as the rapid spreading of parasitic diseases and their subsequently devastating impacts on human health. On the other hand, climate change may precipitate a positive turn in human behaviors, as more humans may be willing to adapt to the new environment and restructure their perceptions and behaviors to preserve limited resources and increase their survival. In either case, the reaction caused by climate change will reflect a whole set of rational considerations, which will be affected by available stimuli and expected consequences. Overall, the biggest problem to be considered is that climate change will have profound consequences for the environment, which will consequently impact human physiology and psychology.

Behavioral Analysis of the Problem

Behaviorism is a unique theory in a sense that it can be readily applied to the analysis of multiple social problems, including climate change. According to Scheele and Papazu, "behaviorist theory is based on principles known from the natural sciences as causality, objectivism, and instrumentalism". Its key assumption is that individuals are inherently rational, and they behave in ways that maximize their utility and gains. Behaviorism is an anthropocentric theory in the sense that it places a human being to the center of all environmental processes. Thus, it is logical to assume that an individual will also be central to the dramatic changes that currently occur to the environment. Because individuals make decisions and behave, based on the stimuli and incentives that affect them, climate change can be treated as both the stimulus and the consequence of human behaviors. From the perspective of behaviorism, climate change may also be considered as a source of motivation, which predetermines the direction of observable behaviors in humans. 

Apparently, behaviorism is a product of numerous scientific and experimental influences, but it is always appropriate to limit the scope of behavioral analysis, thus making it more specific. For the purposes of the current synthesis project, Watson's behaviorism will serve as the starting point of analysis. The choice of Watson's philosophy is justified by two reasons. Firstly, he is fairly regarded as the pioneer of behaviorism. Secondly, Watson was also well-known for his radical environmentalist beliefs and the dramatic contribution to the analysis of social change. This being said, his perspective can provide a solid basis for designing productive solutions to the problem of climate change. 

Behaviorism begins with the assumption that the whole sense of human behaviors is about the complex relationship between stimulus and response. Stimuli operate in the form of either rewards or punishments. They provide valuable information regarding the potential consequences of human actions. In behaviorism, the role of consciousness and internal cognitive processes is secondary, if not minor. Thus, climate change can be regarded as either the stimulus determining the nature and complexity of human behaviors or the logical consequences of human activities. In this context, climate change and social conflict may be intricately related. According to Watson, men and animals adjust to environmental changes in ways that promote their survival. The scope of these behavioral changes may vary across situations. Numerous variables will predetermine the nature of these behavioral conflicts. At one time, a human being will produce an adequate response to an external stimulus; at other times, he or she would be inadequate to the extent that threatens their survival. Social conflict can be treated as a behavioral response to environmental degradation and resource depletion, which limit humans in their behavioral capacity to survive climate change. These conflict behaviors will be extrinsically motivated, as they will be elicited by factors that promise external reward. Such rewards will take a diversity of forms, from the simple availability of food and shelter to long-term survival. 

Apparently, climate change will affect temperature regimes, as well as the patterns of migration, nutrition, and diet. However, behavioral responses to these changes are likely to be uneven. These inequities can be attributed to two important factors. Firstly, it is a simple fact that not all environmental stimuli inevitably generate a behavioral response. Watson maintains that only certain stimuli force organisms into making a response. Secondly, the role of personality variance should not be discounted. Mischel and Shoda write that "individuals are characterized by distinctive qualities that are relatively invariant across situations and over time". Even if this claim is somewhat oversimplified, it is still clear that individuals are unique in their behavioral characteristics. Therefore, the extent to which climate change generates social conflict remains uncertain. It is equally possible that changes in the environmental conditions of life will foster the rise of positive behaviors, which facilitate adaptation and consensus among humans.

Speaking of motivation as behavioral theorists describe it, climate change could precipitate the rise of motivational behaviors to counteract or adapt to climate change. Based on what Graham and Weiner write, such adaptation can be viewed from two different points. The first point is extrinsic motivation. As mentioned earlier, it means that humans do something out of fear or as a promise to gain rewards. Thus, the fear of human losses due to social conflict or the gains promised by adaptation, consensus, and peace may become an extrinsic factor underpinning adaptation in response to climate change. The second point is intrinsic motivation. Graham and Weiner suggest that individuals are intrinsically motivated, when they behave in ways that being inherent enjoyment and satisfaction. Adaptation may become that type of behaviors, which bring internal satisfaction and are thus self-motivating. People by nature are goal-oriented, peaceful, curious, and eager to succeed. Therefore, changes are high that adaptation rather than confrontation will become the most prevalent response to the environmental stimuli created by climate change. These considerations may also foster scientists to reconceptualize behavioral change as the driving force behind future improvements in the environment.

One of the key advantages of behaviorism is that it is not limited to the study of human behaviors but links them to broader concepts of social change. Watson was well-known for his commitment to the goals of humanitarian development and environmental protection. Like Skinner, Watson rested on a belief that the experimental findings of the behavioral science had to inform the development of interventions to dissolve social ills such as climate change. Given the information provided above, the presence of effective stimuli and the existence of sufficient conditions for positive change will ultimately elicit the desired behavioral response in human beings. Thus, possible solutions to the problem of climate change lie deeply in the intricacies of the behavioral theory and its implications for social action.

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Behaviorist Solutions to Climate Change

Behaviorism provides ample opportunities for resolving the issue of climate change. It offers ways to predict and manage human behaviors in ways that reduce the scope of climate change. Watson as the pioneer of behaviorism actively promoted the idea that changing environments could remediate and cure the most problematic social ills. He insisted that environmental solutions could serve as a motivational force behind human behaviors that would lead to optimal social and environmental outcomes. Thus, in essence, behaviorism suggests that the best solution to the problem of climate change lies in behavioral modification. The most promising behavioral solutions to climate change should be rooted in the principles and values of psychological engineering. The science of behaviorism and the results of psychological experiments, coupled with the current knowledge of behavioral physiology, should inform the development of social interventions, which would modify human behaviors and minimize the scope of environmental damage caused by humans. Such programs should be based on the principles of positive reinforcement. They should discourage humans from abnormal or undesirable behaviors, while presenting convincing incentives for positive behavioral change.

From the behavioral perspective, education and sanitation programs could advance the goals of environmental protection and minimize the complexity of environmental damage. Weaver et al. confirm that education and sanitation are two social approaches that could alter the direction of environmental initiatives and prevent the escalation of the problem. However, the biggest question here is what incentives should be in place to make these strategies relevant. Although most humans are assumed to be inherently curious and self-motivated, some of them may still be disaffected or alienated. Consequently, the social surroundings should foster the use of people's active nature in the best interests of the environment. The focus should be on intrinsic motivation, since it is more likely to sustain in a long-term perspective. Some of the stimuli that could promote intrinsic motivation to stop climate change could include autonomy in making environmental decisions, satisfaction from living in a clean community, and lower costs of waste processing for community members. The proposed incentives should be realistic, tangible, and short-term to ensure that the levels of motivations are high enough to cause a positive environmental shift. 

Of course, scientific methods can be used to manipulate temperature regimes in ways that facilitate human adaptation to the changing environmental conditions. In behaviorism, adaptation is one of the key aspects of the human nature. However, it is difficult to imagine that such manipulations will lead to any realistic, sustainable improvements in human behaviors. Beyond simple adaptation, they will hardly stimulate humans to be friendlier to the environment. Thus, the primary goal of behavioral interventions should be in increasing intrinsic motivation to protect the environment and slow down the pace of environmental degradation.

Limitations of the Behavioral Solution

Behaviorism alone can hardly suffice to cause a realistic, observable change in human relationships with the environment. The fact is that behavioral psychology has a number of significant limitations. Firstly, behaviorism rests on the strong relationship between stimuli and consequences. However, even in the presence of effective stimuli, the consequences of human behaviors remain highly uncertain. It is difficult to imagine that all humans will immediately develop pro-environmental behaviors, once programs to promote sanitation and waste reduction are in place. Scheele and Papazu confirm that the nature and complexity of the environmental stimuli have profound impacts on human behaviors. Most humans will not care about some distant climate change priorities. However, they may become more proactive in their ecological choices, if they perceive climate change as having direct effects on their wellbeing. They may also change their behaviors, if they know that they will be punished for non-compliance. Behavioral change is a complex process that encompasses multiple components, which should be harmoniously aligned with the priorities of environmental protection. Moreover, it should be oriented at individual rather than collective priorities. Scheele and Papazu say that behaviorism is unsuitable for managing collective behaviors. Yet, the implementation of climate change programs that target individuals instead of communities can be particularly challenging, if not impossible. Behaviorism is valuable but it represents merely the starting point in the global movement towards sustainability and wellness. 


Behaviorism is a useful lens for the analysis of human behaviors. It has the potential to explain and change human behaviors in ways that minimize the scope of climate change. From the perspective of behaviorism, the chief task is to create and provide effective stimuli to elicit the most desirable behaviors. These stimuli can be extrinsic or intrinsic, but they should motivate humans to behave in a manner that does not damage the environment. Education and sanitation programs hold a promise to improve the ecological situation. Unfortunately, behaviorism as a theory and strategy displays numerous shortcomings. Therefore, it is merely a starting point in the global shift towards sustainability and ecological wellness. 

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