Battling Climate Change with Behavioral Science, Part 1

Much of society considers climate change the most critical issue of our time. But the level of people taking corrective action is astonishingly low. According to climate experts, the pace of change is just unacceptably slow. Why aren't people taking enough action?

First, let's take a look at why people do anything at all: Our brains have evolved over millions of years to constantly scan the environment for risks and opportunities, in order to improve our chance of survival, and that of our offspring.

Behavioral science research has revealed that we have a strong negativity bias when we do this scanning. To put it simply, we pay more attention to the risks than we do to the opportunities.

Every single one of our ancestors managed to avoid predators long enough to bare children. If they screwed up even once, we wouldn’t be here. But they could have missed countless opportunities along the way and lived on to discover others. So, our brains are continuously searching for bad news, identifying it, reacting, and remembering it faster and stronger than we do good news.

The problem is that fear is such a good tool for getting and driving our behavior, that it’s become overused.

If climate change is the ultimate threat to our species’ existence, then why do we give it so little attention, and take so little action? The problem is that fear is such a good tool for getting and driving our behavior, that it’s become overused. The media, politicians, marketing, advocacy groups, and even the entertainment industry all use this technique leading us to feel bombarded with over-sensationalized fear and danger.

So, when we have multiple competing causes for concern and anxiety, how does our brain decide what to handle first? One way is via our “Present Bias” which means that the brain looks for what seems to be the most urgent of the many critical issues.

Despite the many attempts to drive sustainable behavior through increasing fear tactics, these are simply competing against a whole host of dangers which appear more urgent. Worse still, adding more fear into people’s lives often causes them to shut down and/or go into denial. Both of which are counter-productive.

But what if we were to simply explain the facts to people, and help them understand that the practical dangers of climate change far outweigh short-term concerns?

Many people understand this, and that messaging registers in our prefrontal cortex, the conscious part of our brain. But to act on the information, the conscious mind needs to override the emotional centers of the brain by using willpower. Unfortunately, the emotional portions of the brain are much stronger than willpower. A growing body of new research supports the theory that our willpower is an exhaustible resource. It appears to be depleting all day long, every time we avoid temptation, every time we make a decision, every time we have to concentrate, and every time we wrestle with hunger, thirst, sleepiness, pain or annoyance. When our willpower is depleted it leaves us with very little ability to override our immediate issues to take action for long-term advantage.

In this climate, where many sources are driving feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and fear, we're left with very few mental resources to take action on long-term issues, even something as critical as climate change.

In Part 2 of this series, I'll explain how we can rise above the over-sensationalized feelings of fear and danger to create positive behavior change.

Robin is the Founder of the behavioral consulting agency Live Neuron Labs. He has a 20+ year obsession for applying behavioral science through technology to improve human behavior. He’s a member of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab with Dr. BJ Fogg and has been privileged to do behavioral consulting for dozens of companies like Amazon, UnderArmour, American Heart Association, Walmart, and LG. He serves as an officer for the International Action Design Network and founded the 1500 person strong Austin Chapter, Action Design ATX. He lives with his wife and son in beautiful Austin, Texas.