Picture of polar bears


Climate change and COVID-19 are the two most significant crises faced by the modern world – and widespread behavior change is essential to cope with both. This means that official messaging by the government and other authorities is critical. To succeed, leaders need to communicate the severe threat effectively and elicit high levels of public compliance, without causing undue panic.

But the extent to which people comply depends on their psychological filters when receiving the messages – as the coronavirus pandemic has shown.

With COVID-19, the early messaging attempted to circumscribe the nature of the threat. In March, the WHO announced that: “COVID-19 impacts the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions most severely.” Similar statements were made by the UK government.

A reasonable interpretation of this would be that the virus does not “affect” young people. But as new clinical data came in, this message was changed to emphasize that the virus could affect people of all ages and doesn’t discriminate.

But human beings are not necessarily entirely rational in terms of processing information. Experimental psychology has uncovered many situations where our reasoning is, in fact, limited or biased.

[Read: Scientists are homing in on understanding just how sensitive our climate is to CO2]

For example, a mental process called the “affect heuristic” allows us to make decisions and solve problems quickly and (often) efficiently, but based on our feelings rather than logic. The bias has been shown to influence both judgments of risk and behavior. For COVID-19, the official messaging would have established a less negative reaction in young people compared to older people. This would have made them more likely to take more risks – even when new authoritative data about the actual risks came in. Researchers call this “psychophysical numbing.”

Another mental obstacle is confirmation bias. This makes us blind to data that disagrees with our beliefs, making us overly attentive to messages that agree with them. It influences (among other things) automatic visual attention to certain aspects of messages. In other words, if you are young, you may, without any conscious awareness, pay little visual attention to the news that the virus is serious for people of all ages.

The initial positive message for young people also created an “optimism bias.” This bias is very powerful – we know of various brain mechanisms that can ensure that a positive mood persists. One study found that people tend to have a reduced level of neural coding of more negative than anticipated information (in comparison with more positive than anticipated information) in a critical region of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making. This means that we tend to miss the incoming bad news and, even if we don’t, we hardly process it.

All of these biases affect our behavior, and there is clear evidence that young people were more likely to fail to comply with the government’s directives about COVID-19. A survey conducted on March 30 by polling firm Ipsos MORI found that nearly twice as many 16-24 year-olds had low or limited concern about COVID-19 compared with adults who were 55 or older. The younger group was also four times as likely as older adults to ignore government advice.

Lessons for climate change

Our own research has shown that significant cognitive biases also operate with messaging about climate change. One is confirmation bias – those who don’t believe that climate change is a real threat simply don’t take in messages saying that it is.