People are irrational about climate, but teachable

People are not rational. Understanding that, then working with it, can help people make substantial strides in combating climate change.

That's the message from social scientists at the third annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference, taking place this week in Washington, D.C.

Despite decades of scientific evidence that human activities are causing climate change, and an abundance of proposed solutions, societies still are not taking as much action to mitigate climate change as many experts are saying is necessary. That is natural, said Dan Ariely, the main speaker at the first full day of sessions at the conference yesterday.

"If you started to reverse-engineer and said, 'I want to create a problem that people will not care about,' you would probably end up with global warming," explained Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, drawing laughter from the audience. "It will happen someday in the future, to other people, not with 100 percent probability; everything we do is a drop in the bucket. ... What else could there be that people could care less about?"

"We are standing in front of a really difficult problem, because people are just designed not to care about this," he continued.


But understanding the psychology can help, he suggested.

The default option wins

He brought up the "opt-out, opt-in principle," based on the fact that people are much more inclined to choose what is presented to them as the "default option" in making decisions.

In an example that hit closest to home, conference participants had been presented with both vegetarian and meat options for meals when they registered. Last year, the default option was meat, but this year, the default was vegetarian, said Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, the chairwoman of this year's conference. The result was that only 20 percent of participants chose meals with meat this year, compared to 83 percent last year.

Changing the default option can have a significant effect while maintaining people's freedom of choice.

However, having dozens of options to deal with, such as in the Senate's upcoming debate over cap-and-trade climate legislation, makes taking action much harder. Ariely joked that if he were an employer who wanted to ensure that very few of his employees enrolled in 401(k) programs, he would make it a program they must opt into and then present them with a plethora of options. Then they would merely procrastinate, he said.

Another theme of the conference was that humans value the present far more than the future.

It's hard to deal with long-term issues

While examples show that people are not rational in the way that traditional economics assumes they are, there is hope, Ariely said. People can put external constraints on themselves to motivate themselves to take the action that is better in the long run.

In an experiment, pigeons were given the choice of pecking a green button to receive one pellet of food immediately, or pecking a purple button to receive 10 pellets of food in 10 seconds. "For a pigeon, 10 seconds is like a week for us," Ariely joked. The pigeons consistently chose the green button, unable to resist short-term temptation.

After this initial setup, even when the green button appeared after the purple button appeared, the pigeons still chose the green button.

But then a red button was introduced to appear after the purple button. The red button would prevent the green button from appearing -- thus preventing the pigeons from caving in to temptation and losing the long-term gain of 10 pellets of food.

Experiments showed that the pigeons pressed the red button.

Intuition can be wrong

Ariely drew a parallel between the pigeon's quandary and the problem of climate change that people face.

Ariely got interested in human irrationality after spending three years in the hospital due to injuries as a youth. During that time, he would debate with his nurses about what the best approach was to unwrapping bandages -- which covered most of his bodies due to burns. The nurses believed the "rip it off quickly" method was best, while Ariely tried to persuade them to try a slower method of removal. They never budged.

After his recovery, Ariely channeled the debate into his scientific research, investigating whether people preferred short-lived, extreme pain or longer-duration, duller pain. He found the slower bandage-removal process was better for patients, and wondered, "How could the nurses get it wrong in such a repeatable, systematic way?"

From the experience, Ariely realized not only that people's intuitions are not always right, but that people are often resistant to testing their intuition.

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