I’m no environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination but here I am, writing my second post about the environment (my first one being about why recycling isn’t good for the environment.)
Science really changes people, doesn’t it? Or at the very least makes them more aware of how science can be used to benefit the world.
After all, there are two ways you can use psychology.
You can either manipulate people for your own benefit like pretty much all companies do to make you buy their stuff.
Or you can manipulate people for their own benefit like building addictive but educational products or using our inherent psychological biases to change how we treat our planet.
Today we’ll be talking about the latter, shinier side of the coin.
Using science to save the planet
Psychologists and behavioural economists know all about our biases, our psychological tendencies, and the consistent errors that we make because of them.
And this is why science can be used to hack our minds and instigate change for the better good.
But the only way to hack our minds is by changing the things in our immediate environment.
After all, our environment shapes the way we think.
A wonderful Edge talk with Darwinian philosopher Helena Cronin has a telling excerpt on the topic:
Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behaviour that’s sensitive to the environment.
So, the answer to ‘genetic determinism’ is simple. If you want to change behaviour, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it.
So how do we save us from ourselves and help us change to ultimately save the environment?
Elke Weber from the Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University has come up with a few solutions.
1. Gotta have faith in future benefits
Building anything that’s good for the environment or switching to more environmentally friendly solutions costs money.
And because of the costs, environmentally friendly actions seem terribly painful.
On top of that, the benefits of these solutions are uncertain, mostly because the benefits come over time and in dribbles. That, and also uncertainty snowballs into a greater and greater beast the more you look into the future.
But we also have an innate tendency of delay discounting in that we overvalue smaller, short-term rewards and undervalue larger, more long-term rewards.
But we just have got to have the faith that if we spend more now for eco-friendly stuff, we will most definitely see the future generations benefit for many many years.
Let’s just keep the faith.
2. Don’t guilt-trip
Guilt-focused messages are great to attract attention but are awful in maintaining that attention.
Though people might even feel some guilt, they just hide their head in the sand and pretend the messages aren’t there anymore. This is sort of behaviour is called the Ostrich Effect.
Nobody likes negative mood states so naturally such messages will be avoided.
3. Give architects the power
Let’s face it, architects and engineers play a huge part in what is in our environment and what it looks like.
They are the major influential decision makers and we should empower them even more.
Empower to do what exactly?
To design more sustainable infrastructure and buildings.
How would we go about doing this?
It’s no secret that humans respond well to incentives and the virtuosos behind pointy skyscrapers and modern glassy buildings are no different.
One way to incentivise architects, engineers, contractors and other groups who design and build infrastructure would be to grade and reward more environmentally friendly building projects.
For instance, projects that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preserve the habitats of wildlife would be rated higher than projects that emit toxic smoky plumes into our air.
So if architects and engineers are rewarded for their eco-friendly buildings on a particular rating system, it is likely that this would in turn lead to more prestigious tenants occupying these spaces which only perpetuates the prestige of such buildings.
Of course, planning tools such as the Envision rating system already takes care of this aspect. But three decades-worth of behavioural research suggests this system could be improved upon using scientific insight.
4. Play on architect’s aversion to loss
But the point is that humans are loss averse meaning that they want to limit experiencing loss as much as possible.
If we have a system in place that rewards architects and engineers to build eco-friendly buildings, then the architects and engineers that don’t do that will lose a lot of reputation and stature.
So they’ll avoid practices that will have a negative impact on their professional careers.
5. Careful labelling
We have a knee jerk reaction to certain labels.
For instance, we wouldn’t react positively to the label of ‘carbon taxes.’
But if we frame them as ‘carbon offset’ labels, then these labels seem more palpable.
More palpable labels are the way to go.
6. Nudge to use energy efficient light bulbs
Nudging is basically incentivising people to perform a new behaviour by using psychological sorcery.
One way to get people/tenants to choose and use CFL energy-saving light bulbs over less energy efficient lightbulbs would be for architects and engineers to build buildings that can only use eco-friendly lightbulbs.
Then you’re pretty much forced to use CFLs!
7. Shift attention to the future
As humans, we are by default pretty selfish.
We care most about our own present wants and needs and perhaps that’s the reason why we need these sort of environmental solutions in the first place.
But science has shown time and again that we do have other-regarding preferences, meaning that we can be quite selfless and look out for others.
However, these preferences aren’t at the forefront of our value hierarchy.
One way to tap into this selfless attitude would be to induce legacy motivations where it’s not about us anymore but about the future and leaving a sound legacy for the future generations.
A lot of money is invested into training experts, scientists, behavioural economists only for the main decision makers to ignore them in the end.
They have all the tools.
Listen to them.
It’ll do the world some good.
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