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13-05-2020

The Six Biases Putting Our Survival on the Planet in Danger

As part of our series on applying behavioral science to promote sustainability, we’re pleased to share this excerpt from the book Green Nudge, by Eric Singler, CEO of BVA Nudge Unit. In this excerpt, Eric explains six human biases (heuristics) that make it difficult for us to act on the world’s environmental challenges.

There are six fundamental biases that explain why our behavior just doesn’t match up to the environmental challenges we are facing. These are:

  • Status quo bias
  • Overconfidence bias
  • Confirmation bias
  • Present bias
  • Mental availability bias
  • Emotional bias

These biases are why we behave so irrationally, even though we are facing serious environmental challenges. We don’t behave in our best interests, even though without a planet to live on, everything else is irrelevant.

The starting point for any behavioral change strategy is to understand why we behave so inappropriately. Then we can start creating effective action plans.

Status quo bias: It’s hard to kick the habit

Dan Ariely, the formidable professor from Duke University in the United States, sums up the status quo bias as follows[1]: “People usually avoid change, even if it is minor and even if the change is clearly positive.”

Change is exhausting. So people don’t like doing it. Human behavior is guided by habits and reflexes, and whether consciously or unconsciously, we like it that way. Change therefore requires much more effort than you might think. We don’t all do everything we can to protect our environment, in spite of what we know to be true, and that’s primarily because of the power wielded by the status quo bias.

The status quo bias is deeply rooted in human nature, and its foundations are both biological and psychological.

Let’s look at the biology first.

If we consider our “system 1” way of thinking, our habits tell us quickly and easily how to be and how to act. So, we don’t need to pay attention to the multitude of snap decisions we make every day. Our attention isn’t focused on anything in particular and we can use it to do other tasks. In terms of the survival of our species, a few millennia ago this ability to make multiple daily micro-decisions while remaining attentive to our immediate environment was a way of staying alert, being able to identify a potential danger and therefore protect ourselves against it. And it’s still true today. We know that when we’re absorbed in a task, we’re less aware of what might be happening around us and that could cause problems. Habits and reflexes give us the skills to do several things at once, which is basically what makes us human.

But beyond that, neuroscientists have also demonstrated the “biological” benefit of a decision we make out of habit compared to a decision we have considered carefully: we consume less energy when we go with our reflexes. In fact, the brain consumes huge amounts of energy. It only accounts for 2 to 3% of our body mass but uses 15 to 20% of its energy, especially when we need to process information. Reflexes and habits make this task easier, so they use less energy. As such, there is a biological advantage to adopting repetitive behaviors.

The psychological reason for falling into habits is that we like what is familiar to us. Professor Robert Zajonc is one of the wonderful psychologists who has worked on this issue. His numerous experiments have shown that there is a very strong link between familiarity and preference, based on the following premise: the more familiar you are with an object, stimulus or person, the stronger your preference for it will be, regardless of how you may judge its qualities or characteristics. Repetition creates familiarity, then familiarity creates preference. For example if, as Robert Zajonc did, I presented you with a series of Chinese ideograms, showing some more often than others, you will express a preference for the ones you have seen the most. Evolutionary psychologists say that we can find an explanation for this love of familiarity in the ultimate objective: the survival of the species. Something new might kill us, while our old habits thus far, have not. For example, any mushrooms we have already tasted haven’t done us any harm in the past, but

an unknown fungus might poison us, especially if it is a death cap. From an evolutionary point of view, reproducing the same behavior is a way of maximizing the survival of the species.

A kind of conservatism is therefore ingrained in us and dictates our behavior. We also live in a world dominated by routines and habits, living for a long time in the same city or region, meeting the same people, doing the same sort of exercise, drinking in the same bars, eating in the same restaurants, going to the same places on vacation… and making most our decisions mechanically. Researchers at Duke University in the United States tried to assess the portion of habits in our daily actions and came up with the very high figure of 50%.

This status quo bias is therefore the crux of the environmental problem, since it slows down our willingness to make behavioral changes.

Overconfidence bias

The second very problematic bias with regards to sustainable development is that of overconfidence.

How many times have you heard someone play down the importance of the climate issue on the pretext that solutions will be found at some point? That’s the overconfidence bias in action! It can be broken down into three main sub-categories:

  • Overconfidence in the relevance of your overall judgment;
  • Overconfidence in the accuracy of your judgment;
  • Overconfidence in your own performance compared to that of others.

The first scenario is simple: when you carry out a task, you overestimate its real success. Experiments show for example, that participants in quizzes overestimate the percentage of correct answers they will give. At the same time, when we pass judgment, we obviously think our opinion is fair.

The second scenario follows suit: not only do we think our judgment is fair, but we also overestimate its accuracy. We believe our judgment to be both fair and accurate.

The third scenario continues along the same vein: when you ask people if they are better than the average person in how they perform a task – driving for example – then most people will answer yes. And if most people think they driver better than everyone else, someone must be wrong.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Daniel Kahneman emphasized this bias by saying[2]: “What would I eliminate if I had a magic wand? Overconfidence.” He then added: “But it is built so deeply into the structure of the mind that you couldn’t change it without changing many other things.”

Because this overconfidence bias results in a structural optimism about our ability to face challenges, which leads to the following simplistic reactions: the world is in danger, but it doesn’t matter too much because “someone” will find an answer to it.

This bias is catastrophic for the planet and environmental issues, because it makes people feel blissfully optimistic about the future and prevents them from changing their behavior.

Confirmation bias

The confirmation bias reinforces the previous bias. The overconfidence bias leads us to believe that we are right. With the confirmation bias, we only take into account the elements and information available on a subject that back up our own views. Basically, we believe that we are “objectively” right!

In reality, we are particularly sensitive to evidence that confirms our opinion but tend to turn a deaf ear to any evidence that challenges it. From all the information we have at our fingertips, we select the details that support our own point of view, and neglect to consider others. Likewise, when information is ambiguous, we interpret that information in a way that suits our original views. Just listen to two football fans discussing a match between their respective teams. The fans who support the winning team will explain how the result makes sense in terms of how the match was played, while supporters of the losing team will focus on the circumstantial aspect of the win, on the mistake made by the referee that cost them the match, the botched tackle that could have been decisive, and so on. From the information available, the fans will seek out the details that support their personal opinion. And the more involved you are in a question or problem, the more influential the confirmation bias can be. And that’s why it is so difficult to change people’s opinions by arguing with them, because they simply cannot hear your point of view. This applies to football fans, as well as politicians or anyone with strong and emotional connections to a certain cause.

Furthermore, the confirmation bias isn’t restricted to our present experiences. Our memory is also selective; it hooks onto elements that confirm our view of a situation, while forgetting others. So even if you hear conflicting arguments, you will still remember the points that back up your own views more quickly and easily later.

So the dangers of combining the overconfidence and confirmation biases when tackling the environmental question soon become clear. The overconfidence bias drives us to be optimistic about finding effective solutions without needing to worry too much or change our own behaviors. And in the huge swathes of information available, the confirmation bias will seek out and make us remember the arguments that go in that same direction – even when there are very few of them. Remember what Al Gore tried to put across in his beautiful film An Inconvenient Truth: half of all articles claim that there are debates in the scientific community over the issue, yet 97% of studies have found that there is a genuine scientific consensus on the problems that have been identified and the urgency of the action that needs to be taken. If you are a victim of the overconfidence bias, i.e. you are optimistic about the future of the planet and you read that the severity of environmental challenges is up for debate, then you are likely to take warnings about the importance of emergency action much less seriously.

The confirmation bias provides a clear explanation for why we are so resistant to change.

Present bias

The present bias is a real threat to the survival of our species: we are focused on the present time and we play down the importance of the future. We focus on the “here and now”; “tomorrow or later” doesn’t matter.

A specialist on the issue, Professor George Loewenstein from Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, carried out a study that demonstrates the present bias in a simple and fun way. He compiled a list of forty films, half of which were demanding feature films such as Schindler’s List, and the other half were much more easy-going movies, starring big names like Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone. The films were presented without this categorization to the people selected to participate in the experiment. Half of the participants were asked to choose a film to watch that same day, one for the next day and one for the day after. In this scenario, the most people choose an “easy” film to watch on the same day and selected more demanding films for the following days. Participants in the other half of the group were given different instructions: they still had to select a film for that same day, but were asked to come back on the following day to choose the film for that day, and then again the following day. In this case, the majority chose an “easy” film for the same day, as in the first scenario; however the films chosen on subsequent days were also “easy” films. Basically, we always choose fun over effort for the here and now.

Multiple experiences in very many fields have confirmed the truth of this effect, and it really does permeate our life in the world today. This bias is what makes us postpone a medical examination that might be a little unpleasant – like a test for a potentially serious illness – but one that could save our lives if we are given the right treatment. It’s also responsible for our pushing back good resolutions – starting a diet, working more regularly, doing more exercise – until later.

It is dangerous for our personal lives, because it leads us to place more importance on the short term rather than the long term, and to postpone investments that could improve our lives. And of course “tomorrow” can eventually turn into “never”, because when we procrastinate we often end up doing nothing at all.

This trap is also a serious issue for human survival on our planet. By focusing our attention on rewards and short-term gratification, we buy pre-packaged products without thinking about the waste it will cause in the future. We run our cars on diesel because it is cheaper, without thinking about the climate; we take baths or very long showers because they create such a pleasant experience, without worrying about wasting water.

In fact, the present bias makes us perceive immediate effort as very costly for benefits that seem far away, and therefore does not encourage us to change our behavior.

Besides, will our effort really make such a difference?

Mental availability

Another element, not a bias as such but a factor in decision-making, drives many of our actions and slows down behavioral changes in daily life, and that’s mental availability.

When we make decisions, we strive to compare the pros and cons involved. The perfect human in conventional theory makes decisions rationally. He or she identifies the set of important selection criteria, analyzes each option available with regard to those criteria, and making an almost mathematical calculation of benefit v risk known as “usefulness”, eventually chooses the option that is of most benefit.

But as we have seen, people don’t actually work like that: we seek to go much faster and we use our mental shortcuts – simplified logic – to arrive at the most satisfactory decision possible at the lowest cost to ourselves in terms of attention and thought. That’s where the availability heuristic comes in. In the selection criteria we use, certain elements have more weight than others, because they occur to us immediately. They usually have strong connections with the context of the decision to be made, and pop into our head before we even need to think about them. For example, if we’re deciding whether to take a shower or a bath in the evening, our “system 1” is firmly in the driving seat. Besides, if we usually do one or the other, we don’t even give it a thought. If not, we’ll quickly decide based on the first facts that come to mind: drawing a bath takes longer than a jumping in the shower, but will be more relaxing after a hard day, and so on. But we don’t make an exhaustive list of all the arguments for and against one or the other of the options. So the first criteria that spring to mind have the most influence on our decision. We might then forget to consider the financial cost of one compared to the other, or the environmental cost.

Environmental issues often come far behind all the other elements that we take into account when we make our daily decisions. Do you think about waste – and therefore the quantity of packaging – when you are shopping? Do farmers think about wasting water when they are tending to their fields? Do fishing boat crews think about the loss of biodiversity when they bring in huge nets full of fish? No, we think about pleasure and price when we buy our products and return on investment when we water our fields or overfish tuna. The environmental issue is often low down on our mental availability list.

Of course, committed environmentalists don’t think like this, because they consider the issue to be key. Their mental availability is trained on environmental issues, and therefore permeates all the decisions they make. But remember that there is a big difference between intention and action, and mental availability is often the reason.

Emotional bias

The final bias that contributes to stopping changes in behavior despite pressing environmental issues in our daily lives is the emotional bias. Both neuroscientists, like Professor Joseph LeDoux in his book The Emotional Brain and Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error, and Behavioral Economists, like George Loewenstein, have shown that emotion plays a central role in the decisions we make. Overall, we often react much more strongly and are more motivated by a strong emotional feeling than by a dry scientific argument. That’s why, for example, in a famous experiment known as “the identified victim”, when participants were shown a photo of a 7-year old girl named Rokia, and asked to save her from starvation, the average donation obtained was more than double the donations that were generated when participants were asked to donate to help millions of anonymous people.

Our emotional state at the time we make a decision strongly influences how we react and behave. Simple and powerful images are an effective trigger for emotions, much more than a list of facts – no matter how tangible or convincing they may be. Again, we are eminently emotional beings. And this is one of the main problems with communicating on environmental issues. They are often presented very rationally, with figures, scientific evidence and detailed explanations. And it’s perfectly understandable why those trying to share the message use this technique, they want to convince everyone that their reasoning is accurate and that changes in behavior are absolutely essential for our very survival. In addition, environmental issues are often complex and difficult to explain. It is not easy to teach people about global warming specifically or to make it clear that a seemingly minor increase of more than two degrees in the earth’s temperature will have a devastating impact on its ecosystems, and ultimately on life itself. Making a connection between daily tasks that help to protect our environment – recycling your waste or taking public transport – and their knock-on effects isn’t easy either. But because environmentalists need to explain such complex issues, their messages become highly technical and they are unable to spark emotion. That’s why during George Loewenstein’s speech at the most recent annual conference on “Behavior, Energy and Climate Change” last December at Stanford University, he underlined: “With the exception of environmentalists, climate change has not provoked any emotions that correspond to the severity of the threat.” And Dan Ariely[3], one of the other international experts on the role of emotion in behavior, added: “We rarely spring into action when we are shown statistics or attend conferences showcasing the devastating effects of X or Y, but we do often take action when we are faced with glaring examples of distress (for example, a polar bear drowning).”

Of course, there are examples of ecological discourse that can trigger emotions. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth is, to my mind, a perfect illustration of that. The former American vice-president manages to combine scientific demonstrations based on results from numerous studies, and images with powerful emotional messages that illustrate the devastating effects

of environmental damage; the overall tone of the film is also very emotional, which is somewhat down to the presenter’s personal charisma. But most messages from environmentalists are severely lacking in emotion, choosing instead to focus on dry data that tends not to arouse any sort of emotion.

The emotional bias therefore plays an important role in our lack of environmental action, despite the swathes of scientific information and data that we hear and see almost daily.

Ultimately, the combined effect of the biases that are deeply rooted in human nature such as status quo, overconfidence, confirmation, present, mental availability and emotional is a tremendous structural obstacle that prevents us from adapting our behavior in order to start tackling the global environmental challenge that lies ahead.

Therefore, instead of being surprised or scandalized by the absence of responsible behavior, we should try to understand why we’re not seeing that behavior and how we can incorporate these reasons into creating an effective action plan. But that’s certainly not to say that we should stop or cut down on the efforts we are already making. We absolutely must keep on informing, encouraging and motivating, but we also need to open our minds to other approaches, as we will now discover.

Excerpt from Green Nudge by Eric Singler, translated from French by Ruth Simpson


Interested in knowing more about how to improve sustainable habits by design? Get in touch.


[1] Dan Ariely, MOOC, Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.

[2] The Guardian, 18 July 2015, Interview with Daniel Kahneman by DavidShariatmadari.

[3] Dan Ariely, How to turn consumers green?, McKinsey.

Eric Singler

BVA Nudge Unit

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