Lessons from psychology – presenting facts is not enough to overcome human irrationality

Posted by on Jan 8, 2015 in Stakeholders | No Comments

plate-413157_1280The notion of a “green economy” foresees a system that safeguards the environment for the purpose of ensuring jobs and universal affluence. It builds on changes in production and consumption patterns, and a rethinking of how we define human wellbeing. The EU has come up with a strategy on resource efficiency, which demands sustainability measures in all sectors, from agriculture to energy to infrastructure. But are we, as citizens, ready to take the necessary steps soon enough?

The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner, argues, sounding quite hopeful, that the “irrationality of valuing economic growth and material wealth over happiness, security and wellbeing” has to be corrected. Criticizing the way things currently are is insufficient, he says. Instead, we have to stop thinking of environmental conservation as an obstacle to development and start seeing it for what it is: the key to future prosperity and wellbeing. The science is with him.

The problem here is, it is not merely a lack of awareness of the needed paradigm shift that affects people´s choices and actions. At the recently concluded climate change summit in Lima, the agreement that was finally reached is again a weak compromise that will almost certainly not lead to decisive enough action on climate change to limit global warming to the desired 2 degree C target. Important decisions, especially on who is to be responsible for what, were again put off for “later”. How is this possible, in the face of all the evidence of the likely dire consequences of inaction? Surely governmental climate negotiators are fully aware of the science.

George Marshall, co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), and the Climate Change Denial blog, has written extensively about human psychology and crises such as climate change. According to psychologists, human attitudes are governed by complex systems and feedback loops – much like climate change or ecosystem functions. Knowing about something like climate change or biodiversity loss is not enough to cause behavioural change. In fact, it appears that when faced with threatening scenarios, and especially if there is just a grain of uncertainty, many people react with aggressive denial. It is only when people are able to reconcile their own values and world view with scientific fact that they are willing to make personal sacrifices. Daniel Kahnemann, a psychologist who has won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, talks about cognitive biases that bend information so that it supports people’s preconceived opinions.  In view of such biases in thinking, can policies help to avoid erroneous judgments? Kahnemann argues that humans can get beyond their own biases by trying to become aware of them and applying a “slow” way of thinking. According to Kahnemann, people have two ways of thinking: “System 1” is associative and automatic, based on instinct and emotion, while “system 2”, what he calls “slow thinking” takes effort and is more logical. We often need “system 1” for situations that require fast thinking, but we have to use both systems. Without making the effort to use “system 2” we are prone to systematic errors of judgement.

Education alone is not sufficient. In his research he found that educated people are as biased in their politics as less educated ones. Humans tend to want 100% certainty and to oversimplify, but ecosystems are complex and management options are full of uncertainty about outcomes. Sound decision-making means not jumping to conclusions too quickly, not making decisions alone, and learning to deal with probabilities and randomness. Recharge.green is trying to entice decision makers to apply logical decision support models to analyse trade-offs between renewable energy production and other environmental goods.  But politicians, municipal administrators, and energy experts are no doubt subject to the same types of biases as the rest of humankind. They will be well advised to take heed of the lessons emanating from behavioural economics and social psychology.  Being lost in thought can be a good thing after all.

Further reading:

Daniel Kahneman on Bias”, Social Science Bites, 4 January 2013
How to lean against your biases: A conversation with Daniel Kahneman”, American Press Institute, 2014
Kahnemann, Daniel (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Macmillan, 512 pages, ISBN 9781429969352
Lima climate change talks reach global warming agreement”, EurActiv.com, 15 December 2014
Schachter, Harvey (2014) “Slow and deliberate wins the decision-making game”, The Globe and Mail, 14 September 2014
Steiner, Achim (2014) “Towards an Inclusive „Green Economy“: Rethinking Ethics and Economy in the Age of the Anthropocene”, Proceedings of the Joint Workshop on Sustainable Humanity Sustainable Nature our Responsibility, 2-6 May 2014, Extra Series 41, Vatican City, 2014
Marshall, George (2014) “Understand faulty thinking to tackle climate change”, NewScientist, Magazine issue 2982, 18 August 2014

About Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

“I am passionate about nature and mountains, so it is quite satisfying to be involved in a project that seeks a balanced approach to using and protecting the diverse natural resources in the Alps.” _ Karin Svadlenak-Gomez, Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Lead Partner support in project management and public relations of the recharge.green project