Thesis defense

Interplay between cognitive and socioeconomic obstacles to behaviour change : an impact-oriented psychological approach to climate change mitigation

Aurore Grandin
Practical information
14 February 2024
3pm - 6pm

ENS, Dussane, 45 rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris



  •  Coralie Chevallier (Directrice de thèse), INSERM
  •  Guillaume Dezecache (Rapporteur), IRD
  •  Ulf J. J. Hahnel (Rapporteur), University of Basel
  •  Lucia Bosone (Examinatrice), Université Gustave Eiffel
  •  Elise Huillery (Examinatrice), Université Paris Dauphine
  •  Kristian S. Nielsen (Examinateur), Copenhagen Business School


Addressing the threat of climate change necessitates profound changes in behaviour across all societies. Yet individuals face barriers that prevent them from rapidly and effectively reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Recent years have witnessed considerable growth in psychological research concerning the potential of behaviour change for climate change mitigation, and the socio-cognitive barriers to such change. Many interventions to overcome these barriers have been proposed and tested. However, relatively little attention has been paid to how socioeconomic status interacts with these psychological obstacles and affects the effectiveness of these interventions. In addition, while the field of environmental psychology has increasingly focused on interventions promoting the adoption of pro-environmental behaviours, it has often done so without considering the actual impact of these behaviours in terms of reducing personal carbon emissions.

This dissertation aims to advance the study of socio-cognitive barriers to the adoption of low carbon lifestyles, with a particular focus on socioeconomic differences across individuals. This focus responds to a need to anchor environmental psychology research more firmly in an impact-oriented approach. Such an approach suggests that priority should be given to the study of high-impact behaviours, and of the populations that emit the most greenhouse gases. In this perspective, people of high socioeconomic status, who have a disproportionate impact on carbon emissions, should constitute a prime target for interventions aimed at mitigating emissions through behaviour and lifestyle changes.

But while a large body of social science research has documented socioeconomic differences in pro-environmental behaviours and attitudes, few behavioural interventions have specifically targeted individuals of high socioeconomic status. The design of such interventions requires knowledge about the cognitive biases to which people of high socioeconomic status are most susceptible, as cognitive biases are the basis of behavioural interventions. However, the literature on this subject is also fairly limited. One central goal of this dissertation is to contribute to the study of the cognitive biases and motivations that lead individuals of high socioeconomic status to adopt highly polluting lifestyles. In particular, it focuses on an apparent paradox in this literature : although the richest individuals are the highest emitters, they are also more likely to express a willingness to protect the environment and to feel that they can effectively do so, compared to individuals from a lower socioeconomic background. A number of psychological mechanisms, including cognitive biases, can help to understand this paradox.

The work gathered in this dissertation focuses on socioeconomic difference in pro-environmental behaviours and attitudes, and on this discrepancy between willingness to act and carbon footprint among individuals of high socioeconomic status. The first chapter of the dissertation examines the relationship between socioeconomic status, temporal discounting and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. Chapter 2 is a literature review on the belief-action gap in the environmental domain. The third chapter is a review article on social cognition as both an obstacle and a lever to promote effective climate change mitigation. Chapter 4 focuses on the better-than-average effect and present the results of several pilot studies that were conducted to explore the relevance of this bias in explaining why some individuals take few actions to reduce their emissions. The fifth chapter focuses on an intervention designed to counter the better-than-average effect concerning personal carbon emissions, relying on comparative carbon footprint feedback.