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Abstract

What explains our attitudes towards the environment? Why do so many climate change initiatives fail? How can we do more to prevent humans damaging the environment? The Psychology of Climate Change explores the evidence for our changing environment, and suggests that there are significant cognitive biases in how we think about, and act on climate change. The authors examine how organisations have attempted to mobilise the public in the fight against climate change, but these initiatives have often failed due to the public’s unwillingness to adapt their behaviour. The book also explores why some people deny climate change altogether, and the influence that these climate change deniers can have on global action to mitigate further damage. By analysing our attitudes to the environment, The Psychology of Climate Change argues that we must think differently about climate change to protect our planet, as a matter of great urgency.
What explains our attitudes towards the environment? Why do so
many climate change initiatives fail? How can we do more to prevent
humans damaging the environment?
The Psychology of Climate Change explores the evidence for our changing
environment, and suggests that there are significant cognitive biases in
how we think about, and act on climate change. The authors examine
how organisations have attempted to mobilise the public in the fight
against climate change, but these initiatives have often failed due to
the public’s unwillingness to adapt their behaviour. The authors also
explore why some people deny climate change altogether, and the
influence that these climate change deniers can have on global action
to mitigate further damage.
By analysing our attitudes to the environment, The Psychology of
Climate Change argues that we must think differently about climate
change to protect our planet, as a matter of great urgency.
Geoffrey Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University.
He is the author of more than 20 books and regularly appears in the
media. In 2018, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts
for his contribution to social change research.
Laura McGuire is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Edge Hill
University. She explores possible psychological barriers which prevent
people from living a more sustainable lifestyle.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF
CLIMATE CHANGE
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF EVERYTHING
The Psychology of Everything is a series of books which debunk the myths
and pseudo-science surrounding some of life’s biggest questions.
The series explores the hidden psychological factors that drive us,
from our sub-conscious desires and aversions, to the innate social
instincts handed to us across the generations. Accessible, informative,
and always intriguing, each book is written by an expert in the field,
examining how research-based knowledge compares with popular
wisdom, and illustrating the potential of psychology to enrich our
understanding of humanity and modern life.
Applying a psychological lens to an array of topics and contem-
porary concerns – from sex to addiction to conspiracy theories – The
Psychology of Everything will make you look at everything in a new way.
Titles in the series:
The Psychology of Grief
Richard Gross
The Psychology of Sex
Meg-John Barker
The Psychology of Dieting
Jane Ogden
The Psychology of
Performance
Stewart T. Cotterill
The Psychology of Trust
Ken J. Rotenberg
The Psychology of Working
Life
Toon Taris
The Psychology of Conspiracy
Theories
Jan-Willem van Prooijen
The Psychology of Addiction
Jenny Svanberg
The Psychology of Fashion
Carolyn Mair
The Psychology of Gardening
Harriet Gross
The Psychology of Gender
Gary W. Wood
The Psychology of Climate
Change
Geoffrey Beattie
The Psychology of Vampires
David Cohen
The Psychology of Chess
Fernand Gobet
The Psychology of Music
Susan Hallam
The Psychology of
Weather
Trevor Harley
The Psychology of Driving
Graham J. Hole
The Psychology of Retirement
Doreen Rosenthal and Susan M. Moore
The Psychology of School
Bullying
Peter Smith
The Psychology of Celebrity
Gayle Stever
For further information about this series please visit
www.thepsychologyofeverything.co.uk.
THE PSYCHOLOGY
OF CLIMATE
CHANGE
GEOFFREY BEATTIE AND LAURA MCGUIRE
First published 2019
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
and by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2019 Geoffrey Beattie and Laura McGuire
The right of Geoffrey Beattie and Laura McGuire to be identified as
authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with
sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or
reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical,
or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including
photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or
registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and
explanation without intent to infringe.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A catalog record for this book has been requested
ISBN: 978-1-138-48451-1 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-138-48452-8 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-351-05182-8 (ebk)
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Visit https://www.routledge.com/The-Psychology-of-Everything/
book-series/POE
We would like to express our sincerest gratitude to John
Cater, the Vice-Chancellor of Edge Hill University, and
George Talbot, the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at
the University, for their support and encouragement.
Our research has been supported in recent years by the
British Academy and by an Edge Hill University Graduate
Teaching Assistant Award to Laura McGuire which
allowed her to conduct her PhD in this area.
1 Introduction: the man on the bus and the science
of climate change 1
2 Fake news: the science and politics of climate change 11
3 Our rational and irrational selves 23
4 See no evil: how do we stay so optimistic? 35
5 Climate change campaigns and why they failed 51
6 Hard lessons from cigarette advertising 65
7 Assessing our real attitude to climate change 83
8 Concluding remarks 99
Further reading 103
References 105
CONTENTSCONTENTSCONTENTS
A BUS JOURNEY IN THE SNOW
Conversations with strangers on buses are often rather difficult. We
all know that. It was probably the open notebook that attracted his
attention. He kept glancing over at it, surreptitiously at first, and then
with longer glances as if he wanted to be seen. The pure white page
of the notebook had just two words on it. ‘CLIMATE CHANGE!’ in big
bold pencil. He tutted on his third glance at the page and then started
to speak abruptly. ‘Well, that’s bloody nonsense for a start,’ he said. He
pointed to the snow on the street. It was only a fine dusting, but it
was enough. ‘So that’s global warming for you,’ he said and looked at
one of the authors to join him in some communal condemnation of
this great hoax. He said it again, louder this time, and glanced around
for support. He was starting to attract an audience; a number of our
neighbours on the bus were nodding along to his comments, but he
then turned back to the one nearest to him, the one crammed into
the seat beside him, the one who couldn’t move.
Perhaps he had been encouraged by the exclamation mark; perhaps
that’s what was responsible for the conversation in the first place.
‘What a joke,’ he continued. ‘You don’t believe in that rubbish, do
1
INTRODUCTIONINTRODUCTIONINTRODUCTION
The man on the bus and the
science of climate change
2 INTRODUCTION
you?’ His look was accusatory, it demanded an answer. But what was
the point in replying?
It seems that climate change, like politics, religion and death, has
entered the domain of topics that are not discussed in polite conver-
sation. There is just too much disagreement (not violent disagree-
ment, of course, at least not yet, but still very heated and messy)
linked to personal values, different ideologies, even religious views
that cannot be bridged by polite words (although we will try in this
book). It wouldn’t have felt right talking about the difference between
the weather and the climate to that man on the bus, or even trying
to empathise with the fact that ‘global warming’ can be a highly
misleading term for many. Some have suggested ‘climate chaos’ as a
better descriptor of what is happening and what will happen more
and more in the future. The concept of ‘chaos’ captures what we are
witnessing in terms of more frequent, extreme and unpredictable
weather patterns.
But it was probably not the best time for a lecture on climate
chaos, nor was it the best time to point out that there is a remarkable
scientific consensus on climate change – ‘remarkable’ because it is
rare to see this degree of scientific agreement on anything. Science is,
after all, fuelled by dispute, disagreement and difference. That indeed
is its nature – that’s how it develops and grows and changes. But when
it comes to climate change, the scientists agree that there’s been an
increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and that
this is linked to a general warming of the planet. There is agreement
that mean temperatures have increased over the past century and that
they will continue to grow. They also agree that it is ‘highly likely’ that
human beings have contributed to this through their behaviour, on
the basis that these changes in greenhouse gas emissions and global
warming have mirrored major changes in human activity, like the
Industrial Revolution, and changing patterns of land use, energy
demands and transport.
But the term ‘highly likely’ seems to be part of the problem. It’s
not ‘certain,’ the critics say, not like death itself (or taxes, as Benjamin
Franklin wryly noted); it sounds woolly and vague to people unused
INTRODUCTION 3
to probabilistic reasoning. Climate scientists also agree that the impact
of climate change on the planet will be severe, but with variability in
exactly how severe. They have modelled a range of possible outcomes,
but working out the exact probability of each possible outcome is
more problematic because of degrees of uncertainty in the modelling,
including knowledge of the earth’s climate system and future human
activity. That’s the problem with science; it deals with probabilities
and likelihoods.
WHAT THE SCIENTISTS SAY
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which com-
prises hundreds of the world’s leading scientists, is the international
agency charged with reviewing and evaluating the vast body of accu-
mulating scientific evidence around climate change. It was awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Over the past three decades, it has
issued a succession of reports and ‘consensus statements’ summaris-
ing the current state of extant knowledge on climate change, with the
accumulating evidence, still couched in probabilistic terms, pointing
more and more to one inescapable conclusion.
In 1995, the IPCC concluded, ‘The balance of evidence suggests
a discernible human influence on the global climate.’ In the 2007
report, the IPCC concluded,
Human activities . . . are modifying the concentration of atmo-
spheric constituents . . . that absorb or scatter radiant energy . . .
Most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is very likely
to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
In the 2013 report, the IPCC concluded, ‘Warming of the climate
system is unequivocal (italics added) and since the 1950s, many of the
observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia . . .
It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant
cause.’ In 2015, the IPCC concluded that they are ‘now 95 percent cer-
tain that humans are the main cause of current global warming’ (IPCC
4 INTRODUCTION
2015: v; italics added). The IPCC also suggested that, on the basis
of the existing evidence, a rise in global temperature will have
‘severe and widespread impacts on . . . substantial species extinctions,
large risks to global and regional food security . . . growing food or
working outdoors,’ as well as producing more extreme fluctuations
in weather, including droughts, flooding and storms. The conclusions
of the IPCC have been endorsed and supported by over 200 scientific
agencies around the globe, including the principal scientific organ-
isations in each of the G8 countries such as the National Academy
of Science in the United States and the Royal Society in the United
Kingdom.
Furthermore, an increasing number of people are witnessing
the devastating effects of climate change first-hand, with increased
adverse weather conditions such as frequent flooding, stronger hur-
ricanes, longer heatwaves, more tsunamis and periods of drought
(IPCC 2015; UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2016). The World
Health Organisation (WHO 2017) warns that with temperatures ris-
ing and the increase in rainfall, we need to be prepared for more
illnesses resulting from climate change, including mosquito-borne
infections such as malaria, dengue and the Zika virus. The WHO
report, ‘Climate change already claims tens of thousands of lives a
year from diseases, heat and extreme weather,’ and they say it is ‘the
greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.’ Indeed, the World
Economic Forum identified climate change as the top global risk
facing humanity – a greater risk than weapons of mass destruction
and severe water shortages (Global Risk Report 2016).
The evidence suggests that human beings are the most signifi-
cant contributor to climate change through energy use, popula-
tion growth, land use and patterns of consumption (IPCC 2015).
Currently, CO2 emissions from human activity are at their high-
est ever level and continue to rise. Global CO2 emissions in 2011
were reported as being ‘150 times higher than they were in 1850’
(World Resource Institute 2014, see also IPCC 2015). Although
we cannot undo the damage already done with regards to climate
INTRODUCTION 5
change, we do have the power to adapt our behaviour to ameliorate
any future effects.
Despite the fact that the role of human activity in its causation is
‘clear’ (and ‘growing’), evidence for large-scale behavioural adapta-
tion on the part of the public is absent. Indeed, there appears to be a
monumental disconnect between the science of climate change, and
the public’s perception of climate change and their subsequent actions.
For example, a 2013 survey by Yale University found that only 63% of
Americans ‘believe that global warming is happening.’ Interestingly, this
figure had been higher (72%) back in 2008, before the effects of the
economic crisis were fully felt and before the 2009 ‘Climategate’ scan-
dal where emails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia
were hacked. It was suggested at the time that there had been some
manipulation of the scientific data, and climate scientists, like everyone
else in this great ‘climate change debate,’ had a vested interest to protect.
Belief in climate change dropped to 52% in 2010. Nearly half of Ameri-
cans in a 2010 survey thought that global warming was attributable to
natural causes rather than being attributable to human activity – climate
scientists clearly think otherwise.
The answer as to why there is such a great divide in opinions
between scientists and the public (and between different sections
of the public) could be analysed in a number of different ways. We
will argue that it’s most appropriate to consider this in psychologi-
cal terms, but bearing in mind that both the problem itself and any
potential solutions are multidimensional and multileveled. It is a
global issue, involving different countries and governments (and
therefore requiring a consideration of local and global politics), and
diverse social groups with different demographics, different patterns
of media consumption and different educational levels (and, there-
fore, a consideration of sociological, economic and educational per-
spectives), with implications for manufacture and industry (involving
a consideration of both economic and international trade). And, of
course, it involves individuals and their beliefs, values, attitudes and
behaviour, which, we would argue, can be thought of as sitting at
6 INTRODUCTION
the centre of everything, with their values and attitudes driving both
consumer behaviour and the production of goods.
Psychology may indeed hold the key to many of the more puzzling
aspects of our reaction to climate change, but to understand why and
how, we will have to venture into the mind of Donald Trump, we
will have to consider the gaze fixations of consumers in the first few
milliseconds when they look at a product in a supermarket and we
will have to analyse how and why human beings use ‘lazy’ reason-
ing to arrive at certain types of conclusions and what smoking and
climate change have in common. The answer, by the way, is that both
are extremely harmful, but for many years, both were the subject of
a huge ‘scientific debate’ (manufactured and paid for) about the real
damage they can cause. We will examine how this debate was fuelled
and who exactly paid for it. We will venture into the conscious mind
of the public and their unconscious mind, and argue that the ‘conflict’
between these two types of processes might hold the key to many of
the recurrent issues in this whole domain (Beattie 2018).
SOME REACTIONS TO THE SCIENCE
OF CLIMATE CHANGE
There has been scientific evidence for the role of human activity in
producing increased greenhouse gas emissions and climate change for
a considerable time. Indeed, as far back as 1896, the Swedish chemist
Svante Arrhenius calculated the possible effects of doubling the amount
of carbon dioxide on global temperatures. In 1965, President Lyndon B.
Johnson’s Scientific Advisory Council warned that the constant increase
in atmospheric carbon dioxide could ‘modify the heat balance of the
atmosphere.’ In the United Kingdom, the Stern Review (conducted by Sir
Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank) con-
cluded over a decade ago that ‘climate change presents very serious
global risks, and it demands an urgent global response.’ Stern’s conclu-
sion at the time was that ‘climate change threatens the basic elements
of life for people around the world – access to water, food production,
health and use of land and the environment.’ Stern also concluded that
INTRODUCTION 7
it is extremely probable that human activity and particularly patterns of
consumption and energy use, driven by consumer demand for higher
standards of living, are significant factors in the rise of global CO2
emissions and therefore a major driver of climate change. He argued
that ‘Emissions have been, and continue to be, driven by economic
growth’ – a view subsequently supported by the various IPCC reports,
as we have seen.
Evidence for climate change has been available for some time, so
why has this ‘urgent global response’ (in Stern’s words) not occurred?
The IPCC (2015) have argued that we could limit the effects of cli-
mate change by changing our individual and collective behaviour.
We could fly less, eat less meat, use public transport, cycle or walk,
recycle, choose more low carbon products, have shorter showers,
waste less food or reduce home energy use. There has been some sig-
nificant local change but nothing like the ‘global response’ required
to ameliorate the further deleterious effects of climate change.
We are reminded here of a somewhat depressing statistic reported
by a leading multinational, Unilever, in their ‘Sustainable Living Plan.
In 2013, they outlined how they were going to halve the greenhouse
gas impact of their products across the life cycle by 2020. To achieve
this goal, they reduced greenhouse gas emissions from their manufac-
turing chain. They opted for more environmentally friendly sourcing
of raw materials, doubled their use of renewable energy and pro-
duced concentrated liquids and powders. They reduced greenhouse
gas emissions from transport and greenhouse gas emissions from
refrigeration. They also restricted employee travel. The result of all of
these initiatives was that their ‘greenhouse gas footprint impact per
consumer. . . . increased by around 5% since 2010.They concluded,
‘We have made good progress in those areas under our control but . . .
the big challenges are those areas not under our direct control like. . . .
consumer behaviour’ (2013:16; emphasis added). It seems that consum-
ers are not ‘getting the message.They are not opting for the low
carbon alternatives in the way envisaged; they are not changing the
length of their showers (to reduce energy and water consumption);
they are not breaking their high-carbon habits. The question is why?
8 INTRODUCTION
This failure on the part of the public to change their behaviour is
perhaps even more puzzling given that the Department of the Envi-
ronment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the United Kingdom
have repeatedly argued that ‘Many people are willing to do a bit more
to limit their environmental impact, yet people have a much lower
level of understanding about what they can do and what would make
a difference.The Unilever campaign was, of course, designed to help
in this regard by making more sustainable products readily available.
This led to a number of other government-backed campaigns in the
United Kingdom designed to persuade us to change our behaviour –
turning off lights when not in use, buying low carbon products, car
sharing, etc. These are all relatively clearly defined actions, which
could make a significant difference if enough people did them, but
the results were disappointing.
Take, for example, the issue of carbon labelling of products to
guide consumers towards the more environmentally friendly alterna-
tive. Tesco, the UK based retailer, introduced carbon labelling in 2007,
aiming to include carbon labels on all of its 70,000 own-brand prod-
ucts. Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco at that time said, ‘The green movement
must become a mass movement in green consumption.To achieve
this goal, Leahy argued, ‘We must empower everyone – not just the
enlightened or the affluent.’ But Tesco dropped this plan in 2012;
they argued that other supermarkets hadn’t joined them in this enter-
prise and said that the accurate calculation of carbon footprint was
slower and far more expensive than originally anticipated. However,
in reality, it simply didn’t work. And perhaps that could have been
anticipated (Beattie 2012). In an experimental situation, the present
authors found that when viewing products, people paid very little
attention to carbon labels. Using eye tracking to monitor individual
gaze fixations on products every 40 milliseconds, we found that in
less than 7% of all cases, participants fixate on either the carbon-
footprint icon or the accompanying carbon-footprint information in
the first five seconds (Beattie et al. 2010). Five seconds is important,
because that’s the average length of time we view a product before
making our choice in a supermarket.
INTRODUCTION 9
Thus the public in the United Kingdom, in their role as consumers,
were not behaving in the way anticipated by both the government
and major retailers. There were clearly some important psychological
issues here given that people said that they wanted carbon labels on
products, but then failed to look at them. This is the kind of issue we
will explore in this book, which we started in December 2017. The
date could be important – views on climate change do alter depend-
ing upon major world events (and the specific weather at any given
time, including whether it’s snowing or not). It’s sometimes critical
to put a date stamp on projects, particularly ones like this – projects
that affect us all. One day in the future, we might well look back on
climate change and wonder what all the fuss was about. The science,
after all, was clear and unambiguous. The climate scientists commu-
nicated their findings effectively to politicians, policymakers and the
public and everyone (more or less at the same time in this ideal
scenario) decided that urgent change was required, and, as a result,
modified their behaviour at the personal, community, societal and
national levels, resulting in a global trend – a seismic shift in attitudes
and behaviour. That is one scenario.
Or, possibly, one day in the future, we might well look back and
wonder why we didn’t actually do something about climate change
sooner when all the signs were there and clear to see, and now (at
this point in the future where some future generations survive) it is
simply too late to do anything. The science might have been thought
to be clear and unambiguous by some, but for whatever set of com-
plex psychological reasons, the message was not received, or it was
received but not believed, or it was received and judged to be credible,
but we assumed that it wouldn’t affect us so we paid scant attention
to it in the hurly-burly of our daily lives, or we tried in a small way to
make some changes and then we gave up because we concluded that
other people were not making the same effort, and we felt foolish.
This is what this book is about – those ‘complex psychological rea-
sons,’ those psychological factors which may actually be quite simple
but incredibly powerful that might be influencing how we respond to
climate change at every level in terms of the most basic processes such
10 INTRODUCTION
as attention and perception in terms of our emotional and cognitive
responses, in terms of our interpretation and understanding, in terms
of our representation and world view, in terms of our willingness to
talk and share our views about it to our friends and colleagues (or
strangers on a bus) and then further up the chain to our representa-
tives and politicians, all shaping our predisposition to act or not.
So what is the psychology of climate change?
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... So where does this false consensus effect come from? The false consensus effect, as Beattie and McGuire (2018) and others have noted, is a form of social bias linked to various cognitive and motivational biases. Firstly, it arises from the necessarily biased samples of our own personal social experiences. ...
... The false consensus effect is observed in various domains including climate change as we have just noted, climate change believers and deniers over-estimate the commonness of what they believe and do, see their views as normal and appropriate given the available evidence, and make more confident and extreme assumptions about the underlying characteristics of the opposing group (see Beattie and McGuire 2018). But rarely are the attributions about underlying dispositions so confident, intense and emotionally charged as they are in the case of trophy hunting. ...
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... But we also need to ensure that more of the population generally do have stronger positive implicit attitudes to low carbon in the first place. We could also rethink segmentation analyses to profile and target consumers in behavior change campaigns, by employing measures of both implicit and explicit attitudes (Beattie & McGuire, 2018). Members of the public with strong positive explicit and implicit attitudes to 25 carbon footprint will require different campaign messages/interventions to promote behavior change compared to those with strong positive explicit attitudes but weak implicit attitudes to carbon footprint ('surface greens'). ...
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... An important component contributing to the lack of forward movement by societies on the issue of climate change is the role cognitive biases play (Donner, 2011;Mazutis and Eckardt, 2017). Researchers have shown how individuals are significantly impacted by their cognitive biases in relation to their acting and thinking about climate change (Beattie and McGuire, 2018;Sweetman and Whitmarsh, 2016). This has roots in humans' cognitive inabilities to understand the impact of their harmful behaviour towards the environment and climate change (Brick and van der Linden, 2018;Kabanshi, 2020). ...
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One of the greatest paradoxes of human behavior is our tendency to say one thing and do something completely different. We think of ourselves as positive and fair-minded, caring about other people and our environment, yet our behavior lets us down time and time again. Part of the reason for this is that we may have two separate 'selves': two separate and dissociated mental systems - one conscious, reflective and rational, and one whose motives and instincts are rooted in the unconscious and whose operation resists reflection, no matter how hard we try. In all kinds of areas of our life – love, politics, race, smoking, survival - one system seems to make very different sorts of judgements to the other, and is subject to distinct, hidden biases. The Conflicted Mind explores how and why this system operates as it does and how we may use that knowledge to promote positive behaviour change. However, the ‘conflicted mind’ is a broader concept than just the clash between potential (hypothetical) systems of thinking, because in one form or another it forms the very pillars on which the edifice of social psychology is built. This unique book therefore examines key social psychology theories and research in a new light, including Festinger’s concept of cognitive dissonance, Milgram’s obedience experiments, Bateson’s description of conflict in communications, and Bartlett’s explorations of the constructive nature of human memory. Geoffrey Beattie argues that although these classic studies were sometimes great and imaginative beginnings, they were also full of flaws, which social psychology must remedy if it is to make the kind of impact it aspires to. In doing so, he offers a ground breaking perspective on why we think and act in the way we do, to see what lessons can be learned for the discipline of social psychology going forward. Written in the author’s distinct open and engaging style, The Conflicted Mind is a fascinating resource for researchers, specialists, and students in the field, as well as the general reader.