Why Isn’t the Brain Green?

NYTimes logo jpeg This NYTimes article from May analyzes how analyzing the psychological and behavioral factors that have contributed to climate change and will contribute to its solutions is perhaps even more significant than understanding the engineering or technological factors.

Posted April 19, 2009

By Jon Gertner, NYTimes.com
Two days after

Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, the Pew Research Center
released a poll ranking the issues that Americans said were the most
important priorities for this year. At the top of the list were several
concerns — jobs and the economy — related to the current recession.
Farther down, well after terrorism, deficit reduction and en­ergy (and
even something the pollsters characterized as “moral decline”) was climate change. It was priority No. 20. That was last place.

Ny brain2 A little more than a week after the poll was published, I took a seat in a wood-paneled room at Columbia University,
where a few dozen academics had assembled for a two-day conference on
the environment. In many respects, the Pew rankings were a suitable
backdrop for the get-together, a meeting of researchers affiliated with
something called CRED, or the Center for Research on Environmental
Decisions. A branch of behavioral research situated at the intersection
of psychology and economics, decision science focuses on the mental
proces­ses that shape our choices, behaviors and attitudes. The field’s
origins grew mostly out of the work, beginning in the 1970s, of Daniel
Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists whose experiments have
demonstrated that people can behave unexpectedly when confronted with
simple choices. We have many automatic biases — we’re more averse to
losses than we are interested in gains, for instance — and we make
repeated errors in  judgment based on our tendency to use shorthand
rules to solve problems. We can also be extremely susceptible to how
questions are posed. Would you undergo surgery if it had a 20 percent
mortality rate? What if it had an 80 percent survival rate? It’s the
same procedure, of course, but in various experiments, responses from
patients can differ markedly.

Ny brain1Over the past few decades a great
deal of research has addressed how we make decisions in financial
settings or when confronted with choices having to do with health care
and consumer products. A few years ago, a Columbia psychology professor
named David H. Krantz teamed up with Elke Weber — who holds a chair at
Columbia’s business school as well as an appointment in the school’s
psychology department — to assemble an interdisciplinary group of
economists, psychologists and anthropologists from around the world who
would examine decision-making related to environmental issues. Aided by
a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation,
CRED has the primary objective of studying how perceptions of risk and
uncertainty shape our responses to climate change and other weather
phenomena like hurricanes
and droughts. The goal, in other words, isn’t so much to explore
theories about how people relate to nature, which has been a longtime
pursuit of some environmental psychologists and even academics like the
biologist E. O. Wilson. Rather, it is to finance laboratory and field
experiments in North America, South America, Europe and Africa and then
place the findings within an environmental context.

It isn’t
immediately obvious why such studies are necessary or even valuable.
Indeed, in the United States scientific community, where nearly all
dollars for climate investigation are directed toward physical or
biological projects, the notion that vital environmental solutions will
be attained through social-science research — instead of improved
climate models or innovative technologies — is an aggressively
insurgent view. You might ask the decision scientists, as I eventually
did, if they aren’t overcomplicating matters. Doesn’t a low-carbon
world really just mean phasing out coal and other fossil fuels in favor
of clean-energy technologies, domestic regulations and international
treaties? None of them disagreed. Some smiled patiently. But all of
them wondered if I had underestimated the countless group and
individual decisions that must precede any widespread support for such
technologies or policies. “Let’s start with the fact that climate
change is anthropogenic,” Weber told me one morning in her Columbia
office. “More or less, people have agreed on that. That means it’s
caused by human behavior. That’s not to say that engineering solutions
aren’t important. But if it’s caused by human behavior, then the
solution probably also lies in changing human behavior.”

other things, CRED’s researchers consider global warming a singular
opportunity to study how we react to long-term trade-offs, in the form
of sacrifices we might make now in exchange for uncertain climate
benefits far off in the future. And the research also has the potential
to improve environmental messages, policies and technologies so that
they are more in tune with the quirky workings of our minds. As I
settled in that first morning at the Columbia conference, Weber was
giving a primer on how people tend to reach decisions. Cognitive
psychologists now broadly accept that we have different systems for
processing risks. One system works analytically, often involving a
careful consideration of costs and benefits. The other experiences risk
as a feeling: a primitive and urgent reaction to danger, usually based
on a personal experience, that can prove invaluable when (for example)
we wake at night to the smell of smoke.

There are some
unfortunate implications here. In analytical mode, we are not always
adept at long-term thinking; experiments have shown a frequent dislike
for delayed benefits, so we undervalue promised future outcomes. (Given
a choice, we usually take $10 now as opposed to, say, $20 two years
from now.) Environmentally speaking, this means we are far less likely
to make lifestyle changes in order to ensure a safer future climate.
Letting emotions determine how we assess risk presents its own
problems. Almost certainly, we underestimate the danger of rising sea
levels or epic droughts or other events that we’ve never experienced
and seem far away in time and place. Worse, Weber’s research seems to
help establish that we have a “finite pool of worry,” which means we’re
unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem
— a plunging stock market, a personal emergency — comes along. We
simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out. And even if
we could remain persistently concerned about a warmer world? Weber
described what she calls a “single-action bias.” Prompted by a
distressing emotional signal, we buy a more efficient furnace or
insulate our attic or vote for a green candidate — a single action that
effectively diminishes global warming as a motivating factor. And that
leaves us where we started.

Debates over why climate change isn’t higher on Americans’ list of
priorities tend to center on the same culprits: the doubt-sowing
remarks of climate-change skeptics, the poor communications skills of
good scientists, the political system’s inability to address long-term
challenges without a thunderous precipitating event, the tendency of
science journalism to focus more on what is unknown (will oceans rise
by two feet or by five?) than what is known and is durably frightening
(the oceans are rising). By the time Weber
was midway into her presentation, though, it occurred to me that some
of these factors might not matter as much as I had thought. I began to
wonder if we are just built to fail.

Columbia’s behavioral labs are located
underground and consist of a windowless suite of bright, sparsely
furnished rooms with whitewashed cinder-block walls and gray industrial
carpet. Each lab has a common area with a small rectangular table;
adjacent to the common area are several tiny offices equipped with Dell
computers. Depending on the experiment, test subjects, who are usually
paid around $15 to participate and who are culled largely from
Columbia’s student body, can work on tests collaboratively at the table
or individually in the private offices.

Each lab room is also equipped with a hidden camera and microphone.
One afternoon in February, I sat in a small viewing room and watched,
on a closed-circuit television monitor, a CRED experiment being
conducted down the hall by Juliana Smith, a graduate student at
Columbia. Three subjects were dealing with several quandaries. The
first involved reaching a consensus on how to apply $5 billion worth of
federal funds to wind-energy technologies. Should they spend it all on
conventional wind turbines?
Should they invest some (or all) of the money on an as-yet-unproven
technology that would employ magnetic levitation to create a huge,
long-lasting, superefficient wind-powered generator? After the group
came to a consensus in each of the test segments, its members were
asked to go into the offices and figure out their own individual

When I first heard about these particular experiments at CRED, I
assumed they were meant to provide insight into our opinions about wind
power. It turned out the researchers had little curiosity about what we
think of wind power. Because CRED’s primary goal is to understand
decision-making in situations of uncertainty, the wind-turbine question
— should we spend money on building turbines now with a proven
technology or should we finance technologies that might be more
efficient someday? — was intriguing not for its content but for the way
it revealed how our minds work. The familiar variables were all there:
uncertainty, time, potential gains, potential losses.

For the researchers, it was crucial to understand precisely how
group dynamics shaped decisions during the experiment. In Weber’s view,
many important environmental choices (building codes, for instance, or
vehicle purchases) are made by groups — households, companies,
community boards and the like. And various experiments at CRED have
established the ease of getting random individuals to cooperate; in one
test, simply giving some subjects a colored sticker, a blue star, say,
and telling them they were on the “blue-star team” increased group
participation from 35 percent to 50 percent. (Just seating them
together at a table increased participation rates to 75 percent.) “So
cooperation is a goal that can be activated,” Weber told me one
morning. Her point was that climate change can be easily viewed as a
very large “commons dilemma” — a version, that is, of the textbook
situation in which sheepherders have little incentive to act alone to
preserve the grassy commons and as a result suffer collectively from
overgrazing. The best way to avoid such failure is by collaborating
more, not less. “We enjoy congregating; we need to know we are part of
groups,” Weber said. “It gives us inherent pleasure to do this. And
when we are reminded of the fact that we’re part of communities, then
the community becomes sort of the decision-making unit. That’s how we
make huge sacrifices, like in World War II.”

A few days before visiting Columbia’s behavioral labs, I watched a
test run of the same experiments at a large conference table at CRED’s
nearby offices in Schermerhorn Hall. Student subjects, two men and one
woman, debated the two windmill scenarios. “We should put more money in
project A,” one said. Another countered, “But science grows
exponentially, so I think we should put more in B.” An impassioned
discussion about wind turbines went round and round.

I sat between Weber and Michel Handgraaf, a member of CRED and a
professor of psychol­ogy at the University of Amsterdam. Handgraaf, who
had already started running a similar experiment in Amsterdam, leaned
over and whispered to me: “You’ll notice they’re saying, ‘This has
so-and-so effect over so many years’ — that’s analytical. But then
often they’re saying, ‘But I feel this way’ — that’s emotional.” In
short, what Handgraaf and Weber were hearing wasn’t a conversation
about the best wind turbine but a tussle between the subjects’
analytical and emotional methods of risk assessment. These experiments
would be run with 50 different groups in New York, Handgraaf told me,
and the conversations would be recorded and scored for data. The data
were in the words. They were in how individuals parsed uncertainty and
future trade-offs; they were in the phrases they used as they navigated
between thinking and feeling; they were in the way the subjects
followed a winding path to a consensual decision, soothing worries or
explaining technical information to one another or appealing to the
group’s more courageous instincts.

Embedded deep within the experimental structure was another inquiry,
too. The subjects in half of the 50 test groups would first make their
decisions individually and then as a group; the other half would make
group decisions first and individual ones second. Weber and Handgraaf
were fairly confident, based on previous work, that the two approaches
would produce different results. In Amsterdam, Handgraaf told me, he
had already seen that when subjects made decisions as a group first,
their conversations were marked far more often by subtle markers of
inclusion like “us” and “we.” Weber, for her part, had seen other
evidence that groups can be more patient than individuals when
considering delayed benefits. “One reason this is interesting is that
it’s general practice in any meeting to prepare individually,”
Handgraaf said. Or, to put the matter another way: What if the
information for decisions, especially environmental ones, is first
considered in a group setting before members take it up individually,
rather than the other way around? In Weber’s view, this step could
conceivably change the decisions made by a corporate board, for
example, or a group of homeowners called together for a meeting by a
public utility. Weber’s experiments have also looked at how the
ordering of choices can create stark differences: considering distant
benefits before immediate costs can lead to a different decision than
if you consider — as is common — the costs first. Here, then, is a kind
of blueprint for achieving collective decisions that are in the world’s
best interests, but I asked Weber if that wouldn’t that skew the
natural decision-making process.

“We tend to always wonder,” she replied: “What’s that person’s true preference? What do they really want?
I think that’s the wrong question, because we want it all.” People have
multiple goals. If group involvement or the ordering of choices changes
the process of making a particular decision, and in turn the result —
whether because it tweaked our notions of risk or because it helped
elevate social goals above individual goals and led to better choices
for the global commons — that isn’t necessarily a distortion of our
true preference. There is no such thing as true preference.

At the moment, about 98 percent of the
federal financing for climate-change research goes to the physical and
natural sciences, with the remainder apportioned to the social
sciences. In science-policy-speak, that leftover percentage is
typically referred to as “human dimensions” research, an omnibus
description for studies on how individuals and groups interact with the
environment. Paul Stern, a psychologist who heads the Committee on
Human Dimensions of Global Change at the National Research Council
in Washington and whose work includes looking at how people consume
energy in the home, told me that human-dimensions work usually falls
into one of three categories: the human activities that cause
environmental change, the impacts of environmental change on people and
society and the human responses to those consequences. Much of CRED’s
research is about the human responses to the experiences (or
anticipated experiences) of climate change. What makes CRED’s work
especially relevant, though, is that various human attitudes and
responses — How can there be global warming when we had a frigid
January? What’s in it for me if I change the way I live? — can make the
climate problem worse by leaving it unacknowledged or unaddressed.
Apathetic and hostile responses to climate change, in other words,
produce a feedback loop and reinforce the process of global warming.

Lab experiments in the social sciences, like the ones I witnessed at
Columbia, are sometimes criticized for their counterfeit drama. After
all, how often do we actually get to disburse $5 billion from the
Department of Energy on windmills? Also, is the real world made up
entirely of Columbia University students? These factors don’t
necessarily affect the knowledge that researchers can gain about human
decision-making processes; lab experi­ments on investment decisions,
for instance, have long been shown to offer useful insights into our
real-world investment choices. Nonetheless, fieldwork has a value that
can’t always be reproduced in a lab. The lab experiment designed by
Weber and Handgraaf actually took a cue from research done by another
CRED member, Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the University of
California, Davis, who studied farmers in southern Uganda. In 2005 and
2006, Orlove observed how the behavior of the region’s poor farmers
could be influenced by whether they listened to crucial rainy-season
radio broadcasts in groups or as individuals. Farmers in “community
groups,” as Orlove described them to me, engaged in discussions that
led to a consensus, and farmers made better use of the forecast. “They
might alter their planting date,” he said, “or use a more
drought-resistant variety of seed.” Those in the community groups also
seemed more satisfied with the steps they took to increase their yields.

In 2005, Anthony Leiserowitz, a CRED member who directs the Yale
Project on Climate Change, began a multiyear field project when he
drove to Anchorage in a camper with his wife and 2-year-old son. “I had
worked on some national studies about American perceptions of climate
change,” he told me, “and one of the clear findings was — and still is
— that most Americans think about climate change as a distant problem.
Distant in time, and distant in space.” In Alaska, however, there was
already evidence of melting permafrost, insect-driven tree mortality
and diminished sea ice. Leiserowitz saw a natural opportunity. The
possibility that society won’t act decisively on global warming until
we experience a shattering re­ali­zation — a Pearl Harbor moment, as
the climate blogger and former Department of Energy official Joe Romm
recently put it — aligns with our tendency to respond quickly to the
stimulus of experience and emotion, but slowly to a risk that we
process analytically and that may be rife with uncertainties.
Leiserowitz simply wondered if Alaskans, now living in a state of
easily perceived climate changes, could illuminate how — and by how
much — direct experience could change attitudes.

Traveling the state, Leiserowitz interviewed scientists,
journalists, environmental leaders, politicians and — in the remote
northwestern city of Kotzebue — indigenous tribal leaders. He also
commissioned a survey. His data showed that the majority of Alaskans
had indeed detected a change in climate and attributed it to man-made
causes; they also said they believed warming would have significant
impacts on Alaska and the world. But Leiserowitz found deep perceptual
gaps between urban Alaskans, whose experience of climate change was
limited, and rural residents. (People living in Kotzebue, for instance,
were experiencing a threat to their culture from the erosion of sea
ice, which limited their ice fishing.) In sum, Alaskans were no more
worried than the American public as a whole about climate change. And
they were no more inclined than typical Americans to see it as a
serious threat to themselves or to their communities. About half of
them, in fact, considered climate change a long-term problem that
required more study before acting.

Among other things, the results suggested that experience of climate
change is a relative thing: something happening to another part of your
state, or to a different cultural group, doesn’t necessarily warrant a
change in your own response. It likewise hinted at the complexity of
instilling feelings of climate-related urgency in Americans. If you
don’t think or feel there’s a risk, why change your behavior? In
response, researchers like Leiserowitz have investigated messages that
could captivate all different kinds of audiences. Reaching a
predominantly evangelical or conservative audience, Leiserowitz told
me, could perhaps be achieved by honing a message of “moral Christian
values,” an appeal possibly based on the divine instruction in Genesis
2:15 to tend and till the garden.

Over the past few years, it has become fashionable to describe this
kind of focused communication as having the proper frame. In our haste
to mix jargon into everyday conversation, frames have sometimes been
confused with nudges, a term made popular in a recent book, “Nudge:
Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” written by
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein when they were academics at the University of Chicago.
(Sunstein later moved to Harvard Law School and has since been
nominated as the head of the White House Office of Information and
Regulatory Affairs.) Frames and nudges are not precisely the same;
frames are just one way to nudge people by using sophisticated
messages, mined from decision-science research, that resonate with
particular audiences or that take advantage of our cognitive biases
(like informing us that an urgent operation has an 80 percent survival
rate). Nudges, more broadly, structure choices so that our natural
cognitive shortcomings don’t make us err. Ideally, nudges direct us,
gently, toward actions that are in our long-term interest, like an
automated retirement savings plan that circumvents our typical inertia.
Thaler and Sunstein explain in their book that nudges can take
advantage of technology like home meters, which have been shown to
reduce electricity usage by making constant feedback available. These
appeal to our desire for short-term satisfaction and being rewarded for
improvement. Or a nudge might be as simple as a sensor installed in our
home by a utility that automatically turns off all unnecessary power
once we leave for the day — a technology, in effect, that doesn’t even
require us to use our brains. “I think the potential there is huge,”
Thaler told me recently, when I asked him about environmental nudges.
“And I think we can use a whole bag of tricks.”

Leiserowitz and Weber spend a fair amount of time talking to
scientists and policy makers about how to translate their insights into
possible frames and nudges. In Weber’s view, CRED was established
because the traditional model of using decision research — in which
physical scientists doing a study might seek the input of psychologists
at the end to help them frame their findings — seemed both backward and
ineffective. “By then it’s too late,” Weber said, “because you haven’t
explored all the initial options that would have been more beneficial.”
In other words, Weber says she believes decision science isn’t only
about structuring choices or finding the right frame to get a better
outcome; it’s about identifying useful information that can be used for
innovative products, policies and scientific studies. At the National
Research Council, Paul Stern offered the example of a climatologist who
had been discussing climate change with cherry farmers in several
Michigan counties. The farmers didn’t care about future temperatures as
much as the date of the last spring frost. “No one has been interested
in trying to predict the date of the last spring frost,” Stern told me,
but maybe they should be. “They’ve been trying to predict average
temperature and heat waves.” Weber likewise envisioned a similar
application in technology or government policy. “Whatever you design as
the most cost-effective or technologically feasible solution might not
be palatable to the end users or might encounter political
oppositions,” she said. Behavioral research could have helped you see
such hurdles ahead of time. “You could have designed a way to implement
it better. Or you could have thought about another solution.”

Over the winter, the Obama administration
began working on regulations for carbon-dioxide emissions, arguably the
most important climate-related policy ever undertaken. While many
economists favor the simplicity of a carbon tax, it seemed every person
of influence in the United States government agreed that a
cap-and-trade policy — in which carbon emissions are capped and firms
can buy and sell credits — was preferable. Perhaps this was
understandable: the poisonous associations of the word “tax” appear to
doom it as a pol­icy. And yet this assumption can obscure what actually
happens in the minds of Americans on this issue. Not long ago, David
Hardisty, a student of Weber’s, led an experiment in which a 2 percent
fee added to an airline ticket was described to various subjects as
either a carbon “tax” or a carbon “offset.” The subjects were told the
fee would finance alternative-energy and carbon-reduction technologies.
Hardisty predicted he would get different results from Democrats and
Republicans, and that was indeed the case. Democrats were willing to
pay a fee for an offset or a tax; Republicans were willing to pay for
an offset but not a tax. Clearly, the tax frame affected the outcome —
very much so for Republicans.

A more interesting part of the experiment came next. Hardisty asked
his subjects to write down their thoughts, in order, as they decided
whether to pay the tax or the offset. Why should this matter? We’ve
long understood that many of us find the word “tax” repellent, but we
don’t know precisely how it repels us. For the past few years, Weber
and her husband, Eric Johnson, a professor at Columbia’s business
school, have been looking at how we construct our preferences when
making a choice; they theorize that we “query” ourselves, mustering
evidence pro and con from memory as we clear a path to a decision. The
order of the thoughts matters — early thoughts seem to sway our
opinion, biasing subsequent thoughts to support the early position. For
Republicans in the experiment who considered a carbon tax, their early
thoughts were strongly negative (“I will be old and dead by the time
this world has an energy crisis”) and thus led to conclusions that were
overwhelmingly negative, too. That’s why they rejected the tax. Yet for
the same group, the word “offset” actually changed the way subjects
proc­essed their choice. In their thinking, they considered the
positive aspects of the offset first — the financing of clean en­ergy —
and found the overall evidence positive and acceptable. Indeed, in a
follow-up study by Hardisty, merely asking people to list their
thoughts about the fee in one order or another (pros first or cons
first) affected their preference, regardless of whether they were
Democrats or Republicans.

So in terms of policy, it may not be the actual tax mechanism that
some people object to; it’s the way a “trivial semantic difference,” as
Hardisty put it, can lead a group to muster powerful negative
associations before they have a chance to consider any benefits. Baruch
Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a kind of elder statesman
among decision scientists, told me he’s fairly convinced a carbon tax
could be made superior to cap and trade in terms of human palatability.
“I think there’s an attractive version of the carbon tax if somebody
thought about its design,” Fischhoff told me, adding that it’s a
fundamental principle of decision research that if you’re going to get
people to pay a cost, it’s better to do it in a simple manner (like a
tax) than a complex one (like in cap and trade). Fischhoff sketched out
for me a possible research endeavor — the careful design of a tax
instrument and the sophisticated collection of behavioral responses to
it — that he thought would be necessary for a tax proposal to gather
support. “But I don’t think the politicians are that informed about the
realm of the possible,” he added. “Opinion polls are not all that one

One objection to potential nudges, whether on carbon taxes or
household energy use, is that they can seem insidious. “They empower
government to maneuver people in its preferred directions,” Thaler and
Sunstein note in their book, “and at the same time provide officials
with excellent tools by which to accomplish that task.” Thaler and
Sunstein conclude that a crucial principle is to always preserve choice
as an option (nudging people with a home energy meter, for instance, is
fine as long as they can opt out of using it). Weber and David Krantz,
two of the co-directors of CRED, have given the matter a good deal of
thought, too. “People need some guidance over what the right thing to
do is,” Krantz told me. But he said that he was doubtful that you could
actually deceive people with decision science into acting in ways that
they don’t believe are right. “Remember when New York tried to enforce
its jaywalking laws?” he asked. “You can’t enforce stuff that people
don’t believe should be done.”

When I raised the issue of possible ethical dilemmas with Weber, she
countered by claiming that government constantly tries to instill
behaviors that are considered to be in society’s best interest.
“There’s no way around it,” she told me. “We’re always trying to push
some agenda.” Take the decision to allow certain kinds of mortgages and
securities to be sold that are now considered disastrous. In doing so,
according to Weber, “we were privileging certain people, and certain
institutions. And for a long time we were pushing the idea that
everyone should own a house.” As for the question of manipulation,
Weber contended that there is no neutral, “value-free way” of
presenting people with information. “I think you have to take it as a
given that whatever we do, whether it’s what we currently do or what we
plan to do,” she said, “has some value judgment built into it.” The
crucial question, at least to her, is whether (and when) we want to use
the tools of decision science to try and steer people toward better
choices. If our preferences aren’t fixed the way we think they are —
if, as Weber has argued, they’re sometimes merely constructed on the
spot in response to a choice we face — why not try new methods
(ordering options, choosing strategic words, creating group effects and
so forth) to elicit preferences aligned with our long-term interest?
That has to be better, in Weber’s opinion, than having people blunder
unconsciously into an environmental catastrophe.

In fact, any potential climate disasters, at least to a behaviorist
like Weber, would likely signal the start of an intriguing but
ultimately dismal chain of events. A few years ago Weber wrote a paper
for the journal Climatic Change that detailed the psychological reasons
that global warming doesn’t yet scare us; in it, she concluded that the
difficulties of getting humans to act are inherently self-correcting.
“Increasing personal evidence of global warming and its potentially
devastating consequences can be counted on to be an extremely effective
teacher and motivator,” she wrote, pointing to how emotional and
experiential feelings of risk are superb drivers of action.
“Unfortunately, such lessons may arrive too late for corrective

Jon Gertner, a contributing writer, often writes about business and the environment.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 3, 2009

An article in The Green Issue on April 19 about the science of
decision making and the difficulty of getting into a “green mind-set”
misspelled, in one instance, the surname of an elder statesman of the
field. He is Baruch Fischhoff, not Fischoff.

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply