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The Psychology of Green: Are We Doomed to Destroy the Planet?

For some reason, people just don't seem as concerned with making GREEN policy and lifestyle changes as you would expect.  But why? And are we doomed to destroy our planet? Every April, NY Times Magazine puts out an issue devoted solely to Green issues.  In the most recent issue, there was an interesting article about the psychology of green decision making.  In short, Americans listed climate change as a low priority (number 20) when asked to prioritize political issues in a recent Pew Research poll.  That was far below issues such as the economy, Afghanistan, and the auto industry. 

The article continues to discuss the psychology of decision making, or as the field calls it, "decision science," in order to explore why a clearly important issue such as climate change falls so low on our list of priorities. Decision scientists asserts that the human brain relies on several biases in making decisions.  First, our brains are predisposed to be more attentive to loss than to gains.  This makes sense - we are more focused on the economy and Afghanistan because we see negatives pending immediately. We see environmental progress as a gain, not a loss, and therefore it does not appear as pressing.  Second, our brains use shorthand tricks when making decisions, which often leads us to overlook important aspects of a problem.

Cognitive psychologists further propose that we use two separate processes for analyzing risk in any situation: an analytical cost-benefit calculation and a primitive reaction (or feeling), based on our evolutionary fight or flight response. Our analytical brain is good at making quick, short term decisions, but is not designed to look way into the future – which of course is necessary when thinking broadly about the environment and climate change. And as for the emotional brain, it seems there are always more emotional issues taking precedent over the environment: your sick Aunt Edna, your personal finances, your son’s chipped tooth… Again, because climate change is so abstract and far off, it often fails to strike the emotional chord necessary to lead to immediate action. Furthermore, when our brain recognizes these emotional risks, it leads to a single, short term action, because it is based on our fight-or-flight response as opposed to long-term, systemic change.

The article concludes by discussing several interesting research projects being conducted around the world on how people make green decisions, especially when it comes to public policy. Check out some of these interesting projects by clicking on the link to the article. While it is important that we continue to spend our resources on understanding new technologies which will help us clean up our planet, it is equally important that we research “the human factor” and determine how to change peoples’ behavior for the better – otherwise, what’s the point of all that new technology?


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There is much truth in the

There is much truth in the article.   In some cases the immediate benefits will be legislated (taxes and fines which make it more economical to go green).   Government and investment dollars for Green initiatives are driving new startups because entrepreneurs see business success as the short term success.   Many people are jumping the environment for their own short gain rather than the greater good.  To me....that's not a bad thing.

RE: There is much truth in the

I agree - whatever is necessary to get people moving.  Slow changes led by tax insentives will lead to broader, more systemic changes down the road.  And changes in corporate practices will trickle down to changes in individual's every day decisions.

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