Part 3 On adaptation decision-making, whither psychology?

For background on this 3-part series, see “Many Cool Heads for a Hot and Unequal World: Reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences“. And here is Part 1; Part 2.

“…social scientists can productively study and inform decision-making and policy processes. Social science efforts form part of a global conversation that includes citizens around the world, activists and social movements, and a variety of institutions and organizations ranging from communities to nations to international organizations. In addition to operating in empirical and theoretical registers, social science scholars of climate change can also undertake concrete engagements, seeking to inform adaptation policies, especially in less-developed regions.” (Agrawal et al. 2011, p. 330)

The social sciences have informed adaptation decision-making and policy in multiple ways: there is a large empirical body of work on governing adaptation (at multiple scales, across different sectors, traversing natural resource management in villages and cities, to transboundary risk management). There is deep work on the political economy of adaptation in various geographies. And there is emerging work on the politics of adaptation planning and investment, though this literature continues to focus on the unequal and inadequate landscape of adaptation investment without robust entry points for ameliorative action.

There is a remarkably large and rich literature on adaptive governance that draws on social learning and environmental governance to synthesise lessons for governing over long time scales and under uncertainty. There is relatedly, a growing solutions-focussed literature on adaptation pathways, where scholars unpack how people, communities, countries make decisions under ‘deep uncertainty’; how certain choices may open up or close down certain ‘solution spaces’ and how the trade-offs and costs of these decisions can push us to new limits or open up new opportunities.

The one big gap that I believe receives inadequate attention is the behavioural aspects of adaptation, with the discipline of psychology remaining conscious by its almost veritable absence. In 2010, when I was starting out examining why, embedded in the same socio-ecological system, some farmers chose to adapt while others didn’t, I had a handful of papers to draw on: Torsten Grothmann and Anthony Patt’s foundational 2005 paper on human cognition, risk perception, and adaptation decision-making, Monique Sleger’s work on drought perception and adaptation behaviour, and Neeraj Vedwan’s 2005 work on how apple growers in India were perceiving and responding to changing rainfall and snow. There was a lot on risk perception but very little of it linked these perceptions to behaviours. The behavioural economics literature was all homo economicus (I couldn’t reconcile this rational, profit-maximising individual with any smallholder, subsistence farmer I met in the field) and in most adaptation literature, the ‘homo’ tended to be a man, in a male-headed household, ignoring the complex intra-household decision-making processes that feminist literature had been speaking of for multiple decades*.

From then, to a decade later, when we assessed the adaptation behaviour literature for the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5C, I was disappointed to find not much had moved (see Anne van Valkengoed & Linda Steg’s review paper that highlights this gap). While Grothmann & Patt (2005) paved the way for a greater attention to the “importance of psycho-social factors as elements of adaptive capacity” (Mortreaux & Barnett 2017, p.4), the theoretical milestones in adaptation behaviour have been somewhat few and far between**. I believe, there is a substantial research gap on bringing together research on (1) psychosocial drivers of adaptation behaviour (i.e., the values, norms, memories and experiences that shape decision-making), (2) perceived and projected risk (climatic and non-climatic), and (3) personal and collective aspirations that people/communities/countries have as they negotiate these changing risk regimes.

* This topic alone, the erasure/overlooking of feminist literature from climate adaptation research, deserves a series of blogs but for now, I leave you with six key pieces: Diane Wolf’s 1990 paper Daughters, Decisions and Domination; Seema Arora-Johnsson’s 2011 paper questioning the women as vulnerable vs. virtuous caricature; Farhana Sultana’s 2014 foundational Gendering Climate Change; Kaijser & Kronsell’s careful analysis linking climate vulnerability and intersectionality; Houria Djoudi’s 2016 paper; and Mary Thompson-Hall et al.’s 2016 work on intersectionality and adaptation. And for more recent work on gender and climate adaptation, this open access book “Engendering Climate Change“.

** There are notable papers of course, but they are drowned in the big literature of adaptation. Some papers I repeatedly go back to are Gifford’s “The dragons of inaction”; Swim et al’s “Psychology’s Contributions to Understanding and Addressing Global Climate Change“; and two recent papers by Anne van Valkengoed and Linda Steg “The Psychology of Climate Change Adaptation” and “Meta-analyses of factors motivating climate change adaptation behaviour“.

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

5 thoughts on “Part 3 On adaptation decision-making, whither psychology?

  1. I’m finding this very interesting and useful, thank you.

    The links in the “adaptive” paragraph are incorrect, referencing a local site. I’m interested to follow up your references here

    Many thanks


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