A Human Behavioural Crisis Threatens Humanity
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PMC In the News: A Human Behavioural Crisis Threatens Humanity

Jan 30, 2024

This article was originally published in Psychology Today on January 27th, 2024.

The climate crisis should shift from technological solutions to human behavior.


A recent study reports that the growing “climate crisis” is fundamentally a human behavioral crisis that needs behavioral solutions. The study authors argue that too much emphasis is placed on resource-intensive, slow, and symptom-focused solutions, such as the transition to renewable energy.

Instead, attention should focus on maladaptive human behaviors that culminate in a state they term “anthropogenic ecological overshoot”—this could be described as human-caused, unsustainable overconsumption.


The paper leads with a quotation straight out of Edward Bernays’ seminal Propaganda (1928), which itself opens with the provocative “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.” That is quite a bold quote to use unironically.

Leaning on Propaganda and framing climate change as a behavioral crisis reflects a novel approach to “climate change,” which the authors believe is fuelled by “the human behavioral crisis.” While the authors believe behavior was implicitly referenced in previous warnings from the scientific community, they are striving to make it explicit and central, likely a reflection of a behavioral turn witnessed since the publication of texts like Thinking Fast and Slow and Nudge.

Behaviors in Question

The authors argue that there are three primary drivers of the behavioral crisis: economic growth, marketing, and “pronatalism” (i.e., encouraging people to have children), with three corresponding levers of consumption, waste, and population. The study claims that the very behaviors that helped our ancestors survive are the same ones proving problematic due to contextual changes.

In their telling, drastic improvements in healthcare, food accessibility, and access to fossil fuels have significantly impacted factors that once kept the global population culled. As a result, the global population has exploded. Among the behavioral factors that they name as being once adaptive and now problematic include pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance, amassing resources, dominance displays, and perhaps most intriguingly, procrastination rather than action unless we, or close relatives of ours, are under immediate threat

Further to this, and looking back to Bernays, the study notes the centrality of the emergence of marketing to the crisis facing humanity today. Bernays enlivened the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle Sigmund Freud and began a mission of mass persuasion—what Bernays termed “the engineering of consent.” Its applications were many and famously included convincing females to smoke and softening American attitudes towards government actions in Guatemala.

More relevant to the topic at hand, Bernays helped pioneer a wider market for consumer goods by way of selling wants. Merz et al. (2023) write,

“In this brave new world of unchecked business growth, multinationals were no longer marketing hygienic toothpaste, but a mint-flavoured confidence boost.”

These principles exponentially accelerate in reach and efficacy with the development of better tech and the emergence of the field of data analytics.

Villain to Hero

The villain is best placed to save the day, according to Merz et al. (2023), noting the potential harnessed by the marketing, media, and entertainment industries to be put to good. They envisage greater coordination between scientists working in the field of limiting growth, social scientists, and practitioners in the field of behavior change, being set to work on shaping social attitudes and behaviors.

As well as targeting attitudes about consumption and materialism, the authors firmly set their sights on changing attitudes towards birth rates to change behaviors that create birth rates. They cite the example of Population Media Centre, an organization focused on changing attitudes and behaviors by way of storytelling and media content.

One study from Ethiopia is cited, where pre- and post-broadcast quantitative surveys found listeners (of a story) were 5.4 times more likely than non-listeners to know at least three family planning methods. Among the proportion of married women who listened to that production, the use of family planning methods rose from 14 to 40 percent.

A similar case study exists in the work of telenovela producer Miguel Sabibo, whose birth rate targeting telenovelas was so impactful as to win him the United Nations Population Prize in 1986. Sabido had personally reached out to psychologist Albert Bandura to better understand how he might sharpen his craft.

Merz et al. (2023) propose that purposeful media productions use behavioral techniques such as reframing and changing social norms to influence the human behavioral crisis. Unwanted behaviors such as overconsumption should be made an example of and be shown to be undesirable rather than a mark of success or affluence. They cite as a stellar example the reframing of driver overspeeding from being seen as an embodiment of manliness to, in fact, being an embodiment of insecurity.


A key argument being made is that these tools are already being used by individuals, companies, governments, and other centres of power, with the resources and interest in shaping attitudes and behaviors to their gain. The authors nobly propose that, instead, these potent weapons be deployed not for financial gain but to serve “the laws of the natural world.”

The recommendations of Merz et al. (2023) are both stirring and controversial. While the aim of improving humanity’s treatment of the environment is roundly commendable, do the means justify the ends? A case could be made that the very thinking style that led to the crisis itself—mass shaping of attitudes and behaviors by centralized manipulators—is not the remedy for undoing the ills it produced.

The “WEIRD” skewing that tends to feature in manipulators, as well as the typical direction of research—from the “Global North” to the “Global South”—is also relevant. Merz et al. (2023) note that the most economically advantaged parts of the world disproportionately contribute to climate change, and vastly so.

Ethically speaking, there is a great deal to unpack. Regardless, the redrawing of the boundaries of the climate crisis to include a significant focus on behaviors holds a great deal of potential. At the same time, the use of fictional (and nonfictional) stories and media to effect group-level change is as effective as it is underused.

World scientists’ warning: The behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot

In this paper, we use the term ‘behavioural crisis’ specifically to mean the consequences of the innate suite of human behaviours that were once adaptive in early hominid evolution, but have now been exploited to serve the global industrial economyy Read The Study
A real-world example of this can be seen through the telenovelas created by the Population Media Centre. PMC’s broadcasts have been remarkably successful in changing reproductive behaviours in many countries through the role modelling of small family norms, delaying marriage until adulthood, female education and the use of family planning.