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Schouborg, Gary (2001). "Big Brother's Ecological Psychology."

American Psychologist 56 n.5, 458-459


Big Brother's Ecological Psychology


Gary Schouborg


An Orwellian chill ran down my spine as I read the May 2000 quintet of articles on psychology's role in ecological activism (Howard, May 2000; McKenzie-Mohr, May 2000; Oskamp, May 2000; Stern, May 2000; Winter, May 2000). My dread arose not from the authors' admirable concern for the environment, but from their insufficiently self-critical arguments for psychological intervention.


The dread of Orwellian Big Brotherism has three dimensions: valuation, competence, and autonomy. With regard to valuation, our concern is that others may manipulate us to act in their interest rather than our own. With regard to competence, our concern is that even if they have our interest at heart, their attempts to achieve it may be less competent than our own. With regard to autonomy, our concern is that even if they can act effectively in our interest, they may in their zeal short-circuit our greatest good—discovering for ourselves what we value and deciding for ourselves how others may help us. Losing our autonomy while allowing even wise and knowledgeable others to do us good is at best a Pyrrhic victory.


Because psychologists have power over those they serve, they inevitably have opportunity to play an Orwellian role along any of those three dimensions. Doing so may not always be wrong. If psychologists had the competence to turn Nazis against genocide, they arguably should have done so even if they violated Nazi values and autonomy. Yet to admit this is to step onto a slippery slope. Trust in the profession relies on people's perception that it is acting in their interest, with competence, while respecting their autonomy.


Psychologists must therefore be cautious in moving from professional interventions for knowledgeably willing clients (autonomy) to essentially political interventions that attempt to influence others in the direction of psychologists' rather than clients’ values (valuation), while appealing to claims that are beyond psychological expertise (competence). The ecological quintet of authors failed to address those three dimensions adequately, raising the specter of psychologists playing an Orwellian role towards society.


My concern about valuation is one of perception. The undesirability of "the common enemy of an uninhabitable Earth" (Oskamp 2000, p. 506 ) is admittedly a value judgment with which few human beings would disagree. However, in current U.S. political discussion, policies are often suggested that seem to serve personal environmental preferences rather than the strictly delineated goal of habitability. If the profession wades into this public discussion without clearly identifying almost universally accepted goals, many people will perceive it as biased against their particular values.


My concern about autonomy also involves perception. In the turmoil of political discussion, the other side is often not heard with the sensitivity and objectivity that should be characteristic of the psychologist. Once the psychological profession enters the political melee, the perception of its being a sensitive listener to others or an objective observer of the facts will almost inevitably suffer.


My concern about competence is epistemological. Environmentalism depends on one evaluative claim—an uninhabitable environment is undesirable. It also depends on two claims involving expertise: (a) an ecological claim—environmental disaster will occur unless specific behaviors change; and (b) a psychological claim—psychologists can help change those behaviors. Psychological expertise can explain what causes behaviors that have been targeted as ecologically undesirable, how likely these behaviors are to change, and what psychologists can do about them. Stern (2000) and MacKenzie-Mohr (2000) wisely questioned whether psychologists can do all that Oskamp (2000), Howard (2000), and Winter (2000) have recommended. In principle, the discussion is resolvable, and the dimension of psychological competence is satisfied.


What is problematic, indeed deeply troubling, is the quintet's lack of attention to ecological claims, which take up the bulk of their writing. Yes, they discuss the human behaviors that allegedly contribute to an alleged environmental problem that is allegedly critical, and they dress up their arguments with long reference lists. However, they do not discuss what expertise psychologists have to critically assess the ecological literature referenced. Symptomatic of their treading beyond their expertise is Howard's (2000) list of nine "Killer Thoughts" that are environmentally unsound. Only the first one, "Consumption will produce happiness" (Howard 2000, p. 515), is a psychological claim. The next six are economic and the final two ecological.


My point is not to defend the last six propositions against Howard's claim that they are killer thoughts, but to note that their critical assessment lies outside psychological expertise.   Even the more circumspect McKenzie-Mohr (2000) poached on nonpsychological property, recommending psychology's role in


carefully selecting an activity to be promoted; identifying barriers to the activity; designing a strategy to overcome these barriers, when possible; piloting the strategy with a small segment of a community; and, finally, evaluating the impact of the program once it has been implemented across a community. (p. 532)


 Only the last two activities fall completely within psychological competence. For example, identifying low-flow toilets as ecologically correct (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000, p. 532) is not something about which psychologists have anything directly to say. In fact, in my ecological layman's reading, low-flow toilets have recently been shown to be ecologically counterproductive.


Furthermore, barriers to targeted behaviors are often economic. An example of the simplistic economic thinking represented by these articles is Winter's (2000) assertion that "deforestation doesn't just happen: Human beings cut down trees" (p. 516). She thus correctly speaks to the ecological costs of human behavior, but she completely overlooks opportunity costs. I live in a house built from trees and read books made from more trees. Benefits such as those must be balanced against the environmental costs of tree cutting to arrive at the net cost-benefit analysis necessary for responsible decision making. Winter provided no evidence that the history of tree cutting has been maladaptive overall, nor did any of the authors begin to identify just what the net human costs of their proposals would be.


In short, the authors provided insufficient reason for a Big Brother strategy that aims to influence a world that does not yet significantly agree with them: that a crisis is at hand, that human behavior is the principal cause, and that psychology as a profession has the competence to address the issue effectively and wisely. There may eventually be an Orwellian environmental role for psychologists, but this role is a slippery slope that demands extreme caution. The authors have not provided sufficient traction for the profession to step out on such a slope.


Gary Schouborg




Howard, G. S. (2000). Adapting human lifestyles for the 21st century. American Psychologist, 55, 509-515.

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2000). Fostering sustainable behavior through community-based social marketing. American Psychologist, 55, 531-537.

Oskamp, S. (2000). A sustainable future for humanity? How can psychology help? American Psychologist, 55, 496-508.

Stern, P. C. (2000). Psychology and the science of human-environment interactions. American Psychologist, 55, 523-530.

Winter, D. D. (2000). Some big ideas for some big problems. American Psychologist, 55, 516-522.