Ignoring the Effects of Climate Change

How our natural instinct to stay in step with others is interfering with our ability to address the effects of climate change.

| October 2014

Don’t Even Think About It (Bloomsbury, 2014), by George Marshall, explores why some people choose inaction when facing the effects of climate change, even if they accept it as a real phenomenon, and how we can overcome it. The following excerpt from Chapter 6, “The Jury of Our Peers: How We Follow the People Around Us,” introduces us to the concept of social conformity and explains how our natural instinct to not stray from our peers may continue to lead to harmful consequences for our planet.

In the early hours of the morning of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was assaulted and then stabbed repeatedly in a densely populated residential area of Queens, New York. Thirty-eight people (one of them ironically named Joseph Fink) said they had heard her screams and done nothing to intervene. One man lamely shouted, “Let that girl alone,” out of his window before going back to bed. Another pulled a chair up to the window and turned out the light to better see what was happening. No one thought to call the police until it was too late.

Rather than being a sad testament of a broken society—as the newspapers of the day suggested—this lack of response actually revealed the strength of social conformity. People read the social cues. They saw that no one else was taking any action and decided that it was in their best interest to keep out of a potentially dangerous situation. Knowing that others had heard the cries, they diffused responsibility, assuming, quite wrongly, as it turned out, that someone else had called the police.

The tragic Genovese incident launched a rich and still expanding body of research into the importance of social cues in defining what issues people respond to and what ones they ignore. It is a fascinating feature of this bystander effect—as it was subsequently named—that the more people we assume know about a problem, the more likely we are to ignore our own judgment and watch the behavior of others to identify an appropriate response.

A string of experiments confirmed the power of the bystander effect. In one particularly entertaining experiment, an actor faked having a seizure over the laboratory intercom. The last words heard from him were “I could really—er—use some help, so if somebody would—er—give me a little h-help uh er er . . . I’m gonna die,” followed by a choking noise and silence. Of fifteen participants in the experiment, six never got out of their booths, and five others only came out well after the “seizure victim” apparently choked.

Of course, you can only run these kinds of experiments for a few years before your subjects start to get wise to the trick, especially if they are psychology students. Years later, when a subject in a psychology experiment had a real epileptic fit, the other participants were convinced that it was being faked for the experiment and refused to get off their chairs.