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The decision-making process: an overview - Part 5. Cognitive science and Sustainability

Sabrine Hamroun
Published on
Discover part 5 of the series of articles on cognitive science.

Climate change is now undeniable, affecting the entire world on a regular basis. According to Nasa, last July was the hottest month ever recorded since 1880, and the World Weather Attribution confirmed once again that human intervention is making extreme weather events more frequent. Do our actions match the severity of the situation? Simply put, no. But why are we struggling to react appropriately in the face of this ever-worsening urgency? Perhaps cognitive science holds the answer.

Indeed, experts have observed a lag between intentional “green” behavior and actual behavior. 

We might be aware of the urgency and importance of the climate crisis, yet our remedial efforts might still be low. Perhaps more strikingly, people might still “harm the environment although they try to treat it well,” as explained in this article. But where does this discrepancy come from? In the next section, we will present some common cognitive biases impacting ecological behavior. Then, we will examine some behavioral-science-based tricks that could enhance sustainable behavior.

I- Which biases can slow down sustainable behavior?

1- The negative footprint illusion: when A+B<A

When it comes to estimating our carbon footprint, we tend to make quick approximations: we recall our past actions and roughly estimate their CO2 emissions impact, we compare them by classifying their high emissions or low carbon emissions, and most importantly, we tend to think that our low emissions behaviors compensate for our high emissions ones. In other words, we tend to average our emissions. This heuristic estimation is faulty as every one of the accounted actions contributes to global warming, and therefore, they should be added up rather than averaged

In a set of experiments, researchers asked participants (many of whom have a degree in energy-related fields) to estimate how many trees should be planted to compensate for the CO2 emissions of constructing:

A- 150 buildings 

B- 200 buildings: the same 150 buildings as in option A) plus 50 energy-efficient buildings

Oddly enough (or not), participants wrongly reported that fewer trees were needed to compensate for the second case than for the first. They might have thought that by adding energy-efficient buildings to regular buildings, the overall impact would be reduced when it was, in fact, increasing.

This false average can be observed in our daily behavior as well. We might believe that going on vacation by train after another trip by plane would compensate for our footprint when it is actually increasing (certainly less than flying again, but still…).

2- Resistance to change 

Human beings tend to resist change (at different levels), especially when it does not suit their immediate needs, regardless of the severity of the situation – CO2 emissions included. 

These past few years, the city of Rome has endured critical pollution levels, threatening its inhabitants’ health and putting its monuments at high risk of deterioration. One major factor for this pollution was the use of diesel cars. The authorities tried several policies to limit their circulation in the city, but residents usually found a way to circumvent these measures. One policy limited these cars' circulation based on their numbers: odd-numbered cars would be allowed on odd dates, and even-numbered cars on even dates. Yet, instead of following this new rule, “many families responded by purchasing a second car that they’d be able to use on alternating days,” as reported by The Decision Lab, the company that helped Rome handle this use case.

3- People value immediate rewards over long-term rewards

When it comes to making choices, time plays a crucial role. Literature has identified that people tend to prefer immediate rewards over delayed ones. They may undervalue a reward if they don’t get it immediately and even prefer a smaller but instant reward over a bigger but delayed one. Such behavior is known as delayed reward discounting, identified as linked to impulsivity and addiction. 

Experts claim that such decision specificity affects ecological decisions. The impact of our choices on minimizing climate change can be perceived as a long-term effect, and therefore, people might not be willing to put in high efforts for such a delayed impact. 

Still, as catastrophic climate change-linked events have now been happening for the past few years, one might wonder if such arguments can stay relevant.

4- The Halo effect

Consumers are becoming more and more responsible in their purchases. Price and quality are no longer the only criteria for product selection. Other aspects are taken into account: whether an item is ethically produced, healthy, organic, eco-friendly, to name a few. Consumers might  confuse these terms. More specifically, we sometimes mistakenly believe that a product’s high marks in one category automatically extend to another. For instance, we might think that what is good for our health is good also for our planet. Such confusion is known as the Halo effect.

Eating an avocado for brunch brings healthier fat to your body than french fries would, and opting for organic is even better. Yet avocado tree production is water-intensive and becomes challenging under global warming as water resources need accurate management. Moreover, the avocado you ate was likely imported from a faraway country and thus produced higher carbon emissions than fries made with local potatoes. Such confusion between a product's attributes may lead to involuntarily harmful decisions for the planet.

II- How to increase sustainable behavior

Several experts have worked on how to increase sustainable behavior, focusing on applying behavioral insights as crucial for this purpose. Steering individual or collective behavior toward sustainability can be a matter of subtle communication and request framing. 

1- Loss-aversion techniques

As decision-makers, we are more afraid of losing something we already have than happy with gaining something new. This disproportion in gain/loss impact on choice is known as loss aversion, which is widely studied in cognitive science literature and one of the main aspects of the Prospect Theory. 

In order to decrease the use of disposable cups in coffee shops, researchers conducted a series of experiments in several establishments. In some of them, a discount was offered to customers who bought a reusable cup. In other shops, customers were charged extra when purchasing coffee in a disposable cup. And just as the theory would have predicted, people used reusable cups more often in the second set, loss aversion proving to be an effective tool to boost environmentally-friendlier behavior. 

2- Default bias

Setting an option as default is a powerful tool when promoting a specific option in a choice context. When making a choice, we usually tend to make little effort to choose another alternative: it is the default bias

What if this default bias was used as an efficient tool to nudge sustainable behavior? After all, it worked in other cases: for instance, countries where citizens are organ donors by default have higher donation rates than those where citizens need to opt-in for organ donation.

To promote sustainable behavior, small default policies can be implemented: have printer settings set to “two-sided” by default instead of one-sided, serve sustainable food in the workplace, do not give payment receipts unless asked by the customer, and many other ideas listed here

Finally, it is worth noting that using cognitive biases as a “one size fits all” solution to enhance sustainable behavior (because it worked in other situations) is not sufficient. Driving sustainable behavior implies deeper consideration of context and targeted populations to avoid “projecting” policies that do not fit them.

For further reading about concrete behavioral science projects in sustainability, read this report by the OECD.

Stay tuned for the last article on cognitive science in this series!

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