Lens Blog

Psychological insight on current affairs


posted on 7th December 2021 by Annelise Maynard

From the Insulate Britain campaigners blocking the M25 to the protesters chanting No more bla bla bla’ from the perimeters of COP26 and the arrests of XR protesters spraying paint at officers in Glasgow, stories of activism seemed to dominate the press more than the outcomes agreed at the recent global environment summit itself. But just how effective is direct action? And why is it so unpopular?

Despite the fact that almost all of us accept man-made climate change, and our latest report shows that over 78% of people report some degree of ‘eco-anxiety’, direct action remains devastatingly unpopular, with over half of people(52%)believing that action such as blocking major roads actually has a negative impact on provoking climate action. Even members of the government are outwardly critical of direct action. Boris Johnson has previously labelled Extinction Rebellion ‘uncooperative crusties’ despite his recent attempts at appearing environmentally motivated.

What’s interesting however, is that direct action may be more effective than we think. As ever in psychology, we don’t have to be conscious of the impact of something for it to have an effect. There are three possible reasons for this.

First, direct action cuts through and grabs public attention. Even if all we feel towards climate activism is irritation, we have at least had an emotional response to it, when many other more ‘sensible’ news reports about the environment pass us by.

This cut through is essential, because unlike other current and historical social issues, humanity’s response to the climate emergency is uniquely time sensitive.

Mankind finds it difficult to comprehend long-term risks. We are neurologically wired to prioritise more immediate and tangible problems, and therefore the language surrounding climate change, proposing distant dates like 2050, does not suggest a sense of immediacy to the human brain.

For this reason, direct action is necessary; if we want to break cognitive cycles and bring meaningful change, we need disruption that causes people to question entrenched habits and lifestyle choices.

Second, direct action can help shift the ‘Overton Window’ – the scale of action that is considered acceptable by the mainstream. Activists like those in XR or Insulate Britain are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, but in doing so they often make more mainstream groups like the Green Party look more reasonable in comparison.

By acting as ‘outriders’ in the debate, green campaigners who work through more mainstream channels can seem more moderate and acceptable to the general public.

This is a pattern of social change that has happened throughout history. Ideas that were radical in their time, like granting women the right to work or vote or ending racial segregation, are now accepted. The Suffragettes were considered nuisances by many during the early 20th century; in the modern day they are hailed as heroes and freedom fighters as the Overton Window has shifted. Climate change protests seem to be heading in a similar direction.

Finally, direct action may be more effective than we think because of ‘The Availability Heuristic’. Simply put, this describes the mental short cuts we make based on emotional triggers or familiar facts that are easily accessible to us. So, for example, you may sneer at environmental activists on the news, but once you switch the TV off, you might be slightly more likely to remember that it’s time for you to take the recycling out or order that new lower energy lightbulb before you go to bed.

Whilst direct action is unpopular amongst the general public, it catapults climate issues into the collective, national and global consciousness. The government may not be making significant progress on the climate crisis, but there is reason for some positivity in recognising that our psychological behaviours are advancing further than we may think.

So next time you’re getting annoyed reading about direct action in the news on your early morning commute to work, remember that it could be having more of an impact than you think…even on you.

Annelise Maynard is a Global Future Intern currently on her gap year before studying Liberal Arts at The University of Leeds. She studied English Literature, Fine Art and RS at A-level and enjoyed how the humanities connected to provide broader global perspectives. She views The Arts as a means of reflecting histories, shifts in social perceptions and miscarriages of justice. Taking an interdisciplinary outlook on society, literature and art, Annelise hopes to share her passion for social justice and encourage others to stand up for what they believe in too.


Photo credit: Insulate Britain photo by JamieLowe68 (cc)