Global Warming: The Greatest Behavioral Monster

Jul 1   ·   Reading time: 9 minutes

Article at a glance

  • The problem of global warming is one of the most difficult to comprehend and notice issues for the human mind. From the behavioral science point of view, it's a perfect problem.
  • To address climate change effectively, we need to understand how people really make decisions and use behavioral science insights to tackle the issue.
  • For an intervention to be successful, it needs to focus on changing specific behaviors, creating social pressure and the perception of attractive benefits, among other things.
Global Warming: The Greatest Behavioral Monster
What does a perfect problem look like? A problem that is virtually impossible to solve because the human mind just isn't build to see or understand it?

This problem looks precisely like global warming.

In 1973, two scientists, Horst Ritte and Melvin Webber, described a category of problems they called wicked problems. Wicked problems have four key features:

  • We haven't encountered them before.
  • They are hard to grasp in full until they are resolved.
  • They are constantly changing.
  • There isn't a single correct solution to tackle them.

One example of such a wicked problem is global warming caused by human activity. It is the first time we're dealing with it. Even scientists are not in agreement as to its causes and consequences (as opposed to what can be attributed to natural Earth cycles). Each year we're dealing with new and more significant effects of climate change. It is not clear what exactly needs to be done to effectively solve the problem as some experts recommend this, others that. It's the perfect behavioral storm.

The Perfect Problem

I don’t like being pessimistic, but if we consider how the human mind works, the prospects of dealing with global warming aren't promising. If we were to design a perfect problem that the human mind is unable to deal with, it would be climate change. Why?

Reason #1: The problem of global warming is abstract

What exactly is “global warming”?

The problem of global warming is abstract. We don’t know what, where, when, how, in relation to whom or by whom. If we knew that a huge meteorite was heading towards Earth and threatening our existence, we would mobilize in one day. Just as we have done every time there are floods in Poland, the US is hit by another hurricane and when there is an earthquake or a tsunami somewhere in Asia. All these problems are very concrete. We can see a meteorite with our naked eye. Hurricanes too; and before they come, we can see them on satellite maps. When floods and earthquakes hit us, it’s hard not to notice them.

And global warming? It is a fact, but we can’t really see it. Summer days do seem warmer, but it's not like we didn't have 35-degree days before. There is less snow in the wintertime, but even when we were kids here in Poland, February wasn't always white. Ture, there is a lot more plastic on the beaches and in the oceans, but that doesn’t change the weather, does it?

Reason #2: Consequences of global warming are deferred in time

Who cares about the future? In theory, probably many of us, but in practice, we don't. As behavioral science research shows, people care more about the “here and now,” and everything that occurs in the future is less important to us. We consider future benefits to be less rewarding and future costs as less painful. This is one of the reasons why we don't save for their retirement and don't pay enough attention to our health. This is also the reasons why people don't care about what will happen to Earth and the natural environment.

Global warming is even more problematic than (not) saving for retirement since its consequences will affect the next generations more than us. In other words, not only are the implications less critical because they are delayed in time, but they are also less important to us because they will affect other people. So why should I care about any of it now?

Reason #3: Costs of dealing with global warming would have to be borne now

To halt climate change, we need to change our daily habits. Yet, change is hard, and we don't like it. A change to our everyday behavior is a cost. It's an immediate cost because it needs to happen now. We'd have to give up many everyday comforts, such as driving to work, eating meat, drinking water from plastic bottles, buying new clothes every season and flying planes for holidays and weekend get-aways. All while the benefits of these changes will mostly affect others, less so us.

Reason #4: The very existence of global warming is being questioned

Unfortunately, every once in awhile, someone comes along and claims there is no global warming. And these people are not just our Facebook friends who post that there is no global warming because it is winter and it's -20 degrees in Warsaw or Chicago. These people are also respected scientists and politicians. 

To give you an example, I myself witnessed such a discussion among some of the best European scientists in 2015. During the prestigious Academia Europea conference, some of the brightest European minds argued about whether global warming is happening or not, and if it is, whether it is a consequence of human activity or a natural climate cycle of our planet. 

Anyone who is not a scientist and not passionate about the topic will not have the will, time, or skills to study primary data to verify what is happening. Instead, people will hear they have a choice. If some people say one thing and others say another, it means that I can choose which side of the debate I am on. If I don’t want to believe in global warming, I don’t have to, do I?


Global Warming: The Greatest Behavioral Monster

Step #1: Accept the fact that with a democratic approach we won't solve the problem of global warming

It will be challenging to tackle the issue of global warming if no one takes ownership and initiative. It's not a problem that can be solved democratically. Due to its characteristics, we cannot just count on people mobilizing themselves and on education helping. While a few Instagram influencers may start promoting a zero-waste lifestyle, just as many people will fly to London or Rome for a weekend. While some will start cycling to work, others will cut down trees on their land. As long as the problem is not addressed from the top down, there will be no change. 


Step #2: Identify specific behavior(s) that need to change

There is no point in raising awareness of (the concept of) global warming because, as we've already established, this term is too abstract. We need to identify specific behaviors that contribute to environmental pollution on a global scale. Should people stop driving to work? Should they stop buying bottled water? Eating meat? Or maybe we should take shorter and cooler showers and not open windows in the wintertime as not to waste energy used for heating?

When such behaviors are identified — preferably just one at a time, to keep things clear and concrete — they should become the change we're aiming to achieve, not the abstract concept of global warming. Let thy enemy be specific, tangible, and measurable.

Step #3: Create social pressure

Education doesn't lead to change. How many people know they shouldn’t be smoking, eating sugar or texting while driving but still do it?

The good news is that we are social beings. We like to follow the crowd and do what those we respect, admire, or who are like us, do. A critical step in addressing global warming, then, is to create social pressure around a specific behavior so that people start doing the right thing.

Step #4: Offer benefits

While we might like to think of ourselves as kind, helpful, emphatic people, the truth is that we too often have selfish interests and want to do things only when we see a personal benefit. The cost and benefit analysis needs to have a positive outcome.

As we've seen earlier, the result of global warming vs. habit change cost and benefit analysis is unattractive. We need to give up a lot to gain... well, nothing really (for ourselves, here and now). If we want people to change, they need to be given something in exchange for their effort.

The good news is that this benefit doesn't have to be related to the problem.
 For example, if you want people to go to the gym regularly, you don't (and shouldn't) need only to promise better health. People are unlikely to care much about their long-term health. What you can do is hire a handsome, well-built personal trainer and offer a free session with him/her. You're much more likely to get people to come to the gym — the objective of getting people to work out will be achieved, although the tools that led to the goal will have nothing to do with health. Instead, you are encouraging people to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

Likewise, if you want people to be more environmentally conscious, you don’t have to educate them on the impact of their actions on the natural environment. You can offer benefits that are entirely unrelated to the goal you want to achieve, yet ones that will provide them with the perception of an immediate gain.

Step #5: Provide feedback

Finally, people need to be offered feedback so they can better monitor their behaviors. Behavioral science research shows us that we're more likely to change when:

  • There is a specific goal to be achieved.
  • We receive feedback on our progress towards this goal, so we know how we are doing.
  • We can compete with others.
Depending on what specific behavior you decide to focus on in your quest to address global warming, all or some of these tools will be helpful.
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