Psychologists believethey have found a way to persuade people into helping to save the planet through a scientific theory that generally is used to account for prejudice and violence in the world. Developed in the 1990s, the theory is known as social dominance theory, and discrimination and violence to humanity’s social structures. Essentially, the theory explains that people with power will always seek more desirable things in life for themselves at the expense of those they believe are their subordinates. Recent studies have shown how people’s views on social equality which can be understood through this theory effect the way they think an act on environmental issues.

Jim Sidanius, who originally developed with the theory, developed a scoring system known as the social dominance orientation with his colleague Felicia Pratto, which acts as a measure of how much people will accept social ineqaulity, based on agreement or disagreement with a series of statements. Environmental researchers are now adopting this scoring system to establish concern for the environment. A recent paper gathered data from 25 countries and 5,400 participants, determining their SDO score and their intentions towards the environment, such as signing petitions in support of the environment or making a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprint. The conclusion was that those with a higher SDO score, ie those who are more accepting of social inequality and are less altruistic tend to be less concerned about the environment.

This deeper understanding of the ‘laws of social systems’ in relation to the environment is prompting the emergence of new ideas for manipulating human behaviour towards creating a more sustainable future for the planet. For example, environmentalists could re-frame environmental messages to suit socially dominant groups (who tend to have these higher SDO scores) in the US by framing pro-environmental actions as patriotic or as protecting the status quo, which are aspects of their social structure that they value.

Psychology and HSPS applicants can explore social dominance theory and the ways in which it can be applied to different developmental issues, from climate change to racism and gender inequality, and how we can use it to make sustainable change in these areas. Politics and Economics students might consider how these kind of theories can be used nationally to change a national outlook, or the perspective of a certain social demographic.

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