(Article co-authored with Prof. Margarita Mayo)
The transition of cars to electricity is now a reality, one widely studied by experts like Tony Seba and documented throughout the world: a transition from an obsolete, dirty and extremely complex technology, the internal combustion engine, to one that is significantly simpler, cheaper to manufacture, more economical to purchase and run, superior in performance and, above all, clean.
However, most people’s response to the idea of electric vehicles is to deny their advantages, typically citing arguments that are false, illogical or that have long been overturned.
What makes so many of us cling stubbornly to such arguments? After all, they’re being used to rebut scientific evidence. Perhaps psychology can provide us with some answers:
First, let’s enumerate the main arguments usually trotted out against electric vehicles:
- “Electric vehicles create as much pollution as internal combustion vehicles, because they use energy created by fossil fuels.” The “long tailpipe theory” has been dismantled on numerous occasions by many scientific studies, and yet it is still routinely put forward, like some kind of religious truth.
- “The manufacture of electric vehicles is also environmentally harmful.” Wrong, again: it is far simpler to make electric cars than traditional vehicles. What’s more, the companies that make them are particularly careful about their environmental impact.
- “Battery parts are scarce and poisonous.” Nope: lithium, cobalt and other components of today’s batteries get a bad press because of the countries where they are mined, but the reality is that they are not burned or destroyed during use, and do not produce noxious gases. Batteries wear out over time (much less than claimed), but still serve other uses, and their components are recyclable through efficient processes. Equating lithium and cobalt with nuclear waste is simply a lie. They’re not. Also battery technology is continually evolving in terms of cost, materials and efficiency, and follows the usual line of technological components: they are better, cheaper and more efficient.
- “We still don’t have enough electricity generating infrastructure to power so many electric vehicles.” Nice try, but this lie has been exposed on numerous occasions by electrical utilities and regulators in various countries.
- “There’s not enough recharging infrastructure yet.” A classic example of circular reasoning. Sure, there are sometimes lines waiting for a recharge, but as in every market, supply will soon meet demand. As more electric vehicles are sold, more players will build recharging infrastructure, as is already being demonstrated.
- “Recharging takes a long time, making electric vehicles impractical for travel.” This old chestnut assumes we would have one vehicle for all uses, when it would be more efficient to rent for longer journeys. The reality is that recharging depends on the amount of power supplied: Tesla superchargers — which are spreading rapidly — take an average of 15 minutes, a perfectly reasonable time to take a break from driving. What’s more, recharging technology is rapidly evolving. An electric vehicle can meet 90% of its owner’s needs simply by recharging at home overnight.
- “I don’t have garage, so I can’t run an electric vehicle.” There is some truth in this, but more importantly, why should car owners be allowed to use the streets to park their vehicles? This is a misuse of public space. That said, the problem will in fact largely solve itself: by 2030, 95% of us will not own a vehicle, because we will have moved from a model of ownership to one of service, so that cities will be infinitely more pleasant and healthier places to live.
For years, these and other myths were systematically peddled by the oil industry, and many people ended up believing them. Which brings us to the psychology of denial as a way to explain resistance to technological change.
In order to answer this question, as suggested by one of my followers on Twitter long time ago, I asked my dear colleague, Professor Margarita Mayo, from IE Business School, about the psychology of denial. Margarita has a Ph.D. in Psychology and is widely regarded as a world expert in the application of psychology to management, leadership and decision making. Starting here, his detailed answer:
Types of Denial
In his 2001 book States of Denial, US sociologist Stanley Cohen explored the reasons why “there’s none so blind as those that won’t see”, establishing three forms of denial we use when faced with uncomfortable truths, and that can help us understand the resistance of many people to the electric vehicle:
- Literal denial: We deny the evidence, in this case that electric vehicles are cleaner. The first three arguments above are examples of this kind of flat out denial: the energy used by electric vehicles comes from fossil fuels and therefore simply transfers pollution; manufacturing is polluting, and battery components create pollution.
- Interpretive denial: We accept the facts, but refuse to acknowledge how they are being interpreted, or play down their importance. Sure, electric vehicles are cleaner, but this won’t solve the problem of pollution because they are not practical. Here, language and meaning are manipulated to lessen the importance and legitimacy of electrical energy as a valid substitute for the conventional car. The lack of recharging infrastructure needed for so many electric vehicles is put forward. The fourth and fifth arguments above are perfect examples of interpretative denial.
- Implicit denial: The facts and their interpretation are accepted, but we deny the personal, political and social implications of the facts. For example, we accept that the electric car is more energy efficient and cleaner, but refuse to change a way of living we have grown comfortable with. This passive — “yes, but — resistance is the most common and we support it by arguments such as the limited autonomy of electric vehicles, that recharging takes too long, or that we don’t have a garage.
Denial as a defense mechanism
Denial is a human tendency that may have its roots in evolution. Denial can be a coping strategy, as well as a defense mechanism.
- Confrontation strategy. When used as a first step to gain time to adapt to a new situation or challenge, denial can be considered a coping strategy. From an evolutionary point of view, this short period of denial gives us space and time to prepare ourselves emotionally and learn new skills and behaviors.
- Defense mechanism. Permanent denial doesn’t help us and simply becomes a defense mechanism that interferes with learning and leads to adaptive failure. For example, what happens when we simply stick our unopened bills in the drawer? The long-term consequences can be disastrous. The same is true when we ignore new, clean technologies.
In general, the denial of technology cannot be considered a strategy of confrontation, and is instead a defense mechanism, often unconscious, to protect our wellbeing or our self-esteem.
The personality of denial
As Cohen argues, denial is a form of self-deception we use to protect ourselves from danger, both real and imagined. We delude ourselves to maintain the illusion of control over a changing environment, we delude ourselves to boost our self-esteem and sense of our abilities, and we delude ourselves to maintain a sense of continuity over time about our identity. We forget that cars is just a mode of transportation and instead see them as a sign of identity and social status.
Are some of us more prone to denial? Optimism is an antidote to denial. Personality studies show that optimistic people have a mindset of change and self-control that makes them more open to innovation and adopting new technologies. The optimists tell themselves they can learn, and so put in the effort to achieve it. In contrast, pessimistic people are more prone to denial. Pessimists suffer from “learned helplessness” or lack of control over reality because they think they can’t do anything about it, so denial serves as a defense mechanism.
Strategies for overcoming denial
To overcome denial we have to understand the reasons why we deny facts, their importance and their implications.
- Rational strategies. This knowledge strategy is based on the assumption of rationality: we would not publicly deny the evolution of technology if we had enough information. However, we will not overcome resistance to electric vehicles solely by dint of scientific evidence and data. The real reason for denial is not always literal, but also interpretative and implicit. This means that to overcome the denial phase, we need to use emotional and social strategies.
- Emotional Strategies. Denial is not only a rational process, but also an emotional one. One way to convince people against denial is through altruism. To overcome the fear and anxiety that change often produces, we must present an alternative that highlights the positive emotions derived from helping others. One strategy is to appeal to the common good and to our identity as part of a community. This is what Cohen calls “inclusiveness” — feeling like a citizen of the world with a responsibility for improving everyone’s future.
- Social Strategies. Denial is more than an individual psychological process, it is also a social reality. The triple process of denial can be magnified at the social level through negative messages, biased interpretations, or uncomfortable implications for the individual and society. All this leads to a kind of “social resistance” — a state of collective skepticism where denial is contagious. For example, if I think that electric vehicles are for an elite minority and not for people like me, I am falling into an implicit denial that is a barrier to adoption. To break this cycle of denial, people who take the first step publicly must have credibility and be perceived as “one of us.” The proponents of technological change in the energy sector must be highly visible social models we can all identify with.
People and society suffer processes of denial in the face of challenging situations such as technological innovation. We create our “perceptual universe” and see reality through those lenses.
The psychology of denial helps us not only to understand the reasons that lead so many of us to resist technological change, but also to devise strategies to convince us of its advantages.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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