People tend to fear spiders and snakes more than they do electrical sockets or fireworks, even though the latter present a far greater danger. This might help explain why humans have such a hard time seeing the threat of climate change.
Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior can be understood only by studying our ancient ancestors. Through 99 percent of human history, they lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, with brains that handled specific tasks. The kind of rational thinking needed to weigh payoffs far in the future developed recently, in the last 1 percent of our existence.
Now, climate change is presenting humans with the ultimate long-term thinking task. Despite the growing body of evidence that rising carbon dioxide levels will lead to a catastrophic warming of the planet, we keep producing more than ever.
In a recent paper, a team of psychologists, economists and biologists suggest the problem is in the way our brains are built. The nature of climate change, they argue, makes it nearly impossible for us to use “foresight intelligence” – to diagnose the problem in advance, and take planned action to address it.
So what can we do? The team suggests finding ways to get around our brains’ limitations and instead play to its strengths. Studies show appeals to self-interest don’t work as well as social norms in encouraging people to use less energy – people conserve more if they think others are already doing so. As a result, information campaigns could be more effective in changing behavior than policies offering monetary incentives.
Another approach is to frame choices differently. In European nations, nearly everyone allows their organs to be donated for medical uses in the event of a fatal auto accident. In the U.S., the number is 15 percent, though surveys show similar attitudes toward donation as in Europe. Why the difference? Europeans participate in the program by default – they must opt out if they do not wish to donate. In the U.S., people have to “opt in.” This suggests that getting more people to save energy could be as easy as changing the default mode on furnaces and air-conditioners.
Defaults don’t just take advantage of human laziness or inertia. Rather, they assert a societal value and encourage people to follow it. Such small steps can facilitate movements that have the potential to bring about big and sudden change, even if they ramp up slowly.
The study’s authors also suggest “the most difficult but perhaps most important task” is to go away from the economic vision of endless growth, because the production of new things has put too much of a strain on the planet. Most economists would think this radical, yet the second author on the paper, Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow, is about as mainstream as you can get.
Maybe the shift in thinking we need is already starting.
Mark Buchanan is a physicist and Bloomberg View columnist.