Global Warming: The Psychology of Ignoring a Superthreat

By Adam Alter, Assistant Professor of Marketing with affiliated appointment in the Psychology Department
Suppose you're a malevolent engineer trying to design a grave threat to Earth. Your aim is to create a force that does plenty of damage by stealth, somehow evading the attention of the governments who might otherwise frustrate your plans. Well, it turns out that the threat you're looking for already exists, and its name is global warming. Ninety-eight percent of experts agree that the globe is warming, that humans are contributing to the effect, and that our failure to act now will contribute to death, disease, injury, heat waves, fires, storms, and floods. Despite these dire forecasts, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney -- both of whom believe in human-driven climate change -- conspicuously omitted global warming from this year's menu of election issues.

What is it about human psychology that makes meteor strikes and volcanoes so compelling, while global warming languishes as a political afterthought? The answer has many strands, but I'll focus on three, beginning with The Hollywood Test. According to The Hollywood Test, the content of our culture's films reflects our most vivid fears. Over the past several decades, Hollywood producers have funded dozens of big-budget disaster films. In descending order of frequency, those films depicted alien invasions (approximately 100), epidemic and pandemic outbreaks (37), tsunamis and destructive waves (20), earthquakes (16), volcanoes (14), and meteor, asteroid and comet strikes (14). Absent from the list is a scintillating portrayal of global warming, though two films, The Day After Tomorrow and Lost City Raiders, described global warming as the catalyst for floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and a protracted Ice Age. Al Gore's important documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, is perhaps the only film that focuses squarely on global warming, and then it's long on information, and short on Hollywood stars and scenes of graphic devastation. And that sums up the first major problem with global warming: its precise consequences aren't vivid enough. Humans are better at focusing on the moderate, specific, localized devastation of a major earthquake than on the great but murky devastation that global warming will bring in the middle part of the 21st century.

Read full article as published in The Huffington Post.