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 evolved to handle specific tasks, such as recognizing quickly a poisonous reptile or the emotions and intentions betrayed by facial expressions. The kind of rational thinking needed to weigh payoffs far in the future developed only recently, in the last 1 percent of our existence.
Now, climate change is presenting humans with the ultimate long-term thinking task. February saw a record high average global surface temperature — a whopping 1.35 degrees Celsius higher than the average temperature between 1951 and 1980. A recent study suggests that the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets could plausibly raise sea levels several meters by the end of the century. Yet 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 — as if we just can’t believe what we’re seeing.
In a recent paper, Stanford psychology Prof. Lee Ross and a team of other psychologists, economists and biologists suggest that the problem is in the way our brains are put together. The nature of climate change, they argue, makes it nearly impossible for us to exercise “foresight intelligence” — to diagnose the problem in advance and then take planned action to address it. A threat that emerges only gradually, with consequences coming only in the future, just doesn’t excite our ancient mental circuits with the urgency of a scuttling spider or terrorists on the television. It resides in a mental blind spot.
So what can we do? Ross and colleagues suggest finding ways to get around our brains’ limitations and instead play to its strengths. Targeting social instincts, for example, can be effective. Studies show that appeals to self-interest (saving money) don’t work nearly as well as social norms in encouraging people to use less energy — people conserve more if they think others around them are already doing so. As a result, information campaigns could be far more effective in changing behavior than policies targeting the calculating mind through 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 only 15 percent, even though surveys show broadly similar attitudes toward donation on both sides of the Atlantic. 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” by signing the back of their driver’s licenses. 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 them. Such small steps can reinforce one another, facilitating movements that have the potential to bring about big and sudden change, even if they ramp up slowly. Think about how attitudes to smoking have changed in recent decades.
One final point: Ross and his co-authors suggest that “the most difficult but perhaps most important task” is to move away from the economic vision of endless growth, because the production of an ever-widening spectrum of new material things has put too much of a strain on the planet. Most economists would see this as a radical proposition, 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, a physicist and Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of the book “Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics.”