Brain Biases Prevent Action on Climate Change … But Can Help, Too

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Climate change is one of the biggest and toughest problems facing human society. Unless the rise in average global temperates is stopped soon — within a decade or two, not centuries — we will see an increase in extreme weather, droughts, and flooding, as well as rising sea level, a loss of countless species, and other significant effects on natural and human systems.

This should be enough to spur the countries of the world to come together and take the drastic steps needed to tackle climate change. There has been some progress in this area, of course, but so far no coordinated action large enough to match the scope of the problem.

Some would blame political infighting for this inaction, or countries being hesitant to commit to change in the middle of a depressed economic cycle (or to commit when other countries aren’t doing their “fair share”).

Dr. Matthew Wilburn King, an international consultant and conservationist based in Boulder, Colorado, and the president and chairman of the COMMON Foundation, argues on BBC Future that one thing holding back human society from addressing climate change is that our brains have evolved over the last two million years for short-term survival, not long-term problem-solving.

At first glance, this would appear to make our future dependent on “survival of the fittest,” which, at our society’s current level of inaction on climate change, could very well turn out to be “survival of almost no one at all.”

However, King says that although the human brain is rife with biases that make us unsuited for dealing with global problems stretching far into the future, there is an evolutionary upside to our neural wirings and ingrained behavioral patterns that can help us make a difference.

Here is a quick overview of the downsides and upsides to humans’ “highly evolved brains” when it comes to fighting climate change.

Brain Biases

Throughout most of our evolution as a species, humans have survived by paying attention to immediate threats like predators, unstable food sources, and other groups of humans or human-ancestors.

We also became alert to opportunities that help us survive and reproduce, such as knowing where the best sources of water are, being able to hunt and gather, and interacting with members of our small, but close-knit, group.

These evolved traits are still sometimes useful in modern society, but not when it comes to complex threats like climate change. In addition, our ability to focus on the immediate and filter out extraneous information has left us with many cognitive biases (Wikipedia lists 192 of these).

King says several of these cognitive biases help explain why we have been unable to act on climate change on a grand scale:

Hyperbolic discounting. We tend to perceive the present as more important than the future, such as when we easily spend our paycheck on a dinner out, but have a hard time saving for retirement. This present-first thought pattern also keeps us from tackling complex problems like climate change that will take years to solve.

Generation effect. As social creatures, humans care about others, including our family; but this only includes a few generations. So it is hard for us to make changes today that will benefit people several generations from now.

Bystander effect. King says that in early human groups, only a few members responded to threats from outside, such as a wild animal attack. This kept the others out of harm’s way. However, this tendency to stay on the sidelines means that we may assume someone else will fix climate change. This bias is even stronger in larger groups.

Sunk-cost fallacy. Once we’ve put effort into a course of action, we tend to stick with it even if it’s not working out for us. This tendency increases as we invest more time, energy, and resources into that course. King gives the example of our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels for energy, even though we have known for decades that they are harmful and that there are better alternatives.

Evolutionary Upsides

While these brain biases are very real, they aren’t the only factor in whether we take action on climate change. King says our brains have evolved other capacities that make us ideally suited to tackle this problem, including:

Mental “time travel.” We have a nearly endless capacity to remember past events and imagine future scenarios, even large-scale ones like climate change.

Complex imagination. We are able to predict multiple, complex outcomes, and decide which actions are needed to achieve the outcome we desire. This is something that we often do on our own, such as buying life insurance to protect our loved ones in the case of our death, or saving for retirement.

Framing effect. We are more likely to take action if a challenge is framed positively, rather than negatively. With climate change, this means focusing on how our actions can have a positive impact (e.g. lives, species and habitats saved), rather than focusing on the negative (e.g. extinction, extreme weather events).

Innovation. Humans are innovative creatures, innovative enough to come up with technologies like solar panels, electric vehicles, carbon pricing, and carbon capture systems.

Communication. We are also a species with an innate ability to communicate, not just face-to-face with our group members, but through the telephone, internet, databases, books, eBooks, and more. That means we can accumulate and pass on knowledge that will help us address global warming.

King says these capacities work well at the individual and small-group level. How small is small? Some research suggests that humans can only maintain meaningful relationships with 150 other people.

Addressing climate change, though, requires action at a much larger scale. Still, small groups can make a difference. And when you put those efforts together, you have a much bigger impact.

King gives several examples of small groups taking positive steps toward addressing climate change. One effort is led by Exposure Labs, the film company behind Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. It uses its films to get small groups in a community to identify concrete steps that can be taken at the local level to have an impact.

King says this helps minimizes the bystander effect. People also tend to value ideas more if they “own” them. In addition, when people can compare their own actions to those of others, they may be encouraged to do more—what’s known as “social comparison.”

Exposure Labs managing director Samantha Wright told King, “To get people to act, we need to make the issue feel direct and personal by focusing the issue locally, pointing both to local impacts and local solutions: like moving one’s city to 100% renewable energy.”


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