where are the psychologists (when it comes to talking about behavior change)

Almost daily a new piece is published – often in the opinion sections – about behavior change, denial and climate change. This new one in the New York Times is just the latest in a string of laments and armchair analysis of the mechanisms of denial, engagement and agency.

I’ve been designing and teaching graduate courses on psychological dimensions of environmental communications and education; as well as psych and climate change, and environmental communications.

At one point this summer during the residency at Royal Roads University, I had an ‘AHA’ moment. I realized how few people who speak as authorities on behavior change, engagement, psychology and sustainability, actually know anything about psychology.

What I have noticed is a lot of people weighing in on behavior change, coming from social policy, economics, even architecture, technologists, designers, urban planning, journalism. It seems this topic is fair game for anyone to speak on authority about. This puzzles me; would a psychologist have validity to speak about urban planning… Maybe. But I doubt it. I’m not a hard-core disciplinarian by any means – I am thoroughly interdisciplinary in my training and thought – but I consistently find myself asking: Where are the psychologists (clinical especially), and why are they not being invited into the dialogues? Is this a structural problem (lack of context, forums) or is this something else? (Note: I intend to resolve the structural-context problem as soon as I’m able: watch this space.)

What I don’t fully understand is why those who have been working in clinical contexts, specifically on issues of behavior change, addiction, mental health, agency, and for the more psychoanalytic, on contradiction, ambivalence, anxiety and most importantly, the nature of defense mechanisms – are notably absent in these increasing laments regarding behavior change and our ecological crises. These are hybrid, systemic, complex,
‘wicked’ problems and require all hands on deck, including (if not especially) those who study human psychology up close and intimately. (Working with people in therapeutic contexts and clinical research – a different approach and purview from much of psychological scientific research.)

Denial is a well recognized psychological defense mechanism. (Specifically, it is a psychosocial process.) While sociologists as Kari Norgaard are productively conceptualizing denial as “social,” — in that it takes social interactions to produce, enable and maintain denial —  clinicians are arguably more experienced with close-up, intimate and messy work of negotiating denial, projection, splitting and the range of uncanny and canny things humans do when anxious, fearful, experiencing loss or anticipating loss.

We seem very fond of systems thinking but somehow the ‘system’ of subjectivity and the psychodynamics of the social and the psychic is itself being split off, dissociated. Meanwhile quite frankly, a lot of people who are not qualified to be musing on the mechanisms of behavior change, continue to do so.

This dialogue would be much strengthened by including psychosocial perspectives, and in particular research methodologies informed by psychosocial approaches. I am personally committed to this.



  1. Jane S. Peters

    Renee, Loren Lutzenhiser passed along a link to your blog. I am a social psychologist/urban studies PhD. working in energy now since 1982 (and a bit before). There are a few of us in the energy field, but we are not the flashy folks who get asked about what we know, in fact we have learned a lot in 30 years about behavior and energy and yet there is much left to learn and understand. I certainly share your concern about who is being asked to comment on behavior and the environment – more particularly behavior and energy. I for one would be happy to dialog with you, point you to some work I have done as well as others working in this arena for many years.

    • Renee Lertzman, PhD

      Fantastic, Jane- thank you for writing. I would love to dialog and also explore potential collaborations; I’m a researcher in Portland seeking projects and opportunities to apply my training, skills, perspectives. I am leaving for China on Thursday to teach and run some workshops – back end of the month. Let’s find time to meet then. Thanks for writing.


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