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  • Jacob Bourne

Research Examines the Role of Social Attachment in Responding to Climate Change

Anthropogenic climate change is the result of sustained collective human action over time. Heightened awareness about its dire effects has spurred calls to action to help reverse the course of harmful environmental change. Such action also requires sustained collective human activity over time. However, the difference is that curbing climate change is often associated with sacrificing financial gain and comfort, making it easy for people to eschew responsibility.

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences funded by the New York University Office of Sustainability Green Grants Program may have solved the riddle of what it takes to achieve positive collective action toward addressing climate change. The good news is that the approach transcends differences in political ideology. The bad news is that it’s not a simple fix but rather deals with the core of society’s underpinnings.

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The research results from four studies examining the role of psychological attachment theory on support for climate change mitigation. Attachment theory deals with emotional bonding between humans instilled in early childhood, designed to provide a caring and supportive environment safe from threats. Depending on how well the bonding goes, people can grow up to be securely attached adults, or not so much. The presence of secure psychological attachments can have far-reaching impacts on people and societies. According to the PNAS article, it has significant implications for people’s willingness to do something about climate change.

“We propose that secure attachment is crucial for understanding climate change mitigation because the latter is inherently a communal phenomenon resulting from joint action and requiring collective behavioral change,” the authors wrote. “Here, we show that priming attachment security increases acceptance and perceived responsibility toward anthropogenic climate change via increased empathy for others.”

The increased empathy is the crux of the issue. Although the effects of climate change in the form of natural disasters have become more apparent, many still deny the reality, and others fail to change relevant behaviors (one being simply voting for leaders who take the issue seriously). However, the research found that information about climate change doesn’t necessarily help the situation. On the other hand, a sentiment of caring for others and capacity for cooperation can initiate desired responses.

Secure attachment as a way to enable climate mitigation was demonstrated through four studies. The first showed the priming secure attachment significantly increased an individual’s acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. The second revealed that attachment security directly increased the perceptions of personal responsibility about climate change.

The third study illustrated that secure attachment transcends political ideology regarding individuals’ likelihood to donate to pro-environmental causes. Researchers took three groups of people: a control group, a group who viewed a National Geographic documentary about climate change and a group primed for secure attachment. The researchers found that although the video did little to incite people to donate compared to the control group, the secure attachment priming significantly increased the odds of contributing to climate change efforts, even among political conservatives.

The final study was conducted at an international university in the United Arab Emirates to determine how attachment influences food waste behavior, noting that food waste in landfills accounts for 15.1% of methane emissions in the U.S. The results showed a decrease in food waste for those exposed to secure attachment messaging versus information about carbon emissions.

Overall the research concluded that attachment security impacts how people acknowledge, care about and do something to mitigate climate change.

“Our results suggest that the activation of caregiving motives, expressed as higher empathy, is the underlying process,” the authors wrote. “Our results are compatible with the hypothesis that secure (versus insecure) attachment tempers self-interest and increases the willingness to endure the costs to finance cooperative solutions to mitigate climate change.”

They went further to suggest that effective climate mitigations efforts should be grounded in human-human interconnection, acknowledging that “Changing dispositional attachment security likely takes long-term structural and institutional changes to produce results, mainly in the groups through which people fulfill their basic human needs.”

The research is transformative in that it gives credence to the notion that social safety net policies around parental leave and childcare could impact psychological well-being in children and translate into more securely attached adults who care more about the health of the environment. It also shows that adults can also be influenced positively by being primed for secure attachments in relationships.


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