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When the Heart can't Contain what the Mind can See: Psychosocial Research on Human Engagement with Climate Change


This one day seminar critiqued the traditional cognitive and behavioural approaches to the psychology of climate change, highlighted an alternative approach and presented findings from in-depth qualitative research.

spiderswebOn Saturday 24th November, CPA continued its tradition of collaboration with like-minded organisations. Birkbeck College, University of London hosted an event, which was jointly organised with the Association for Psychosocial Studies. Titled "When the Heart Can't Contain What the Mind Can See: Psychosocial Research on Human Engagement with Climate Change”, it presented a wealth of material in full forum and parallel sessions.

The introductory notes point to the ambitious breadth of vision which the event sought to address.

This was probably the first time this form of climate psychology research had been brought together at a single event. Psycho-social researchers seek to avoid the split between those that say the problem is ‘all society’ (e.g. a market and money led economy) and those that say it is ‘all the individual’ (e.g. we are ‘wired’ to respond only to risks that are tangible and immediate). In contrast psycho-social researchers are interested to understand the two-way traffic between inner and outer, the personal and the political.

Much of the featured work was based upon detailed qualitative interviews undertaken by researchers who were alive to the emotional dimension of interviewees’ experiences and the need to create a setting in which the unsayable and unthinkable could find expression (in imagery, metaphor, dreams, etc). Researchers were also alert to the ways in which the meanings people give, for example to their political activism or their consumption habits, are affected by their life history and their social identity.

Presentations during the course of the day covered topics such as the lived experience of climate activists and sustainability professionals, the use of metaphor in the policy making process, mourning in the context of environmental degradation and the variety of ways in which all of us defend ourselves against disturbing and/or painful ecological realities (Al Gore’s ‘inconvenient truth’).

Psycho-social research around human responses to climate change, consumption and energy use is gathering pace in the UK and elsewhere and we hope this event will prove to be one of the first of a growing tradition. More information about the seminar and its proceedings can be obtained by contacting Paul Hoggett on