4.23.2009

Wired to Fail?

Humans aren't wired to sufficiently worry about a concept like climate change. It is too abstract, and it seems to lie too far in the future to inspire the type of concern that spurs action. Thus, we forget about it quickly when faced with worries and challenges that arise in everyday life. And our politicians, even those who advocate government intervention, are subject to the same innate (and potentially catastrophic) limitations.

This article from Seed outlines the potential for social science to play a crucial role in figuring out how to incentivize conservation efforts--both on a large-scale political level and in our day-to-day routines. Social scientists are studying the ways we socialize about the issue, with the hope that experimental data might help us figure out how to trick ourselves into caring enough to act.

This New York Times Magazine article linked by Nick is (interestingly) similar. Each story calls attention Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED). The Times piece contains an illustrative anecdote about when the author had the chance to observe one such social experiment in which volunteer subjects were tasked with deciding, by consensus, how to best invest $5 billion worth of federal funds in wind energy technology:

I sat between Weber and Michel Handgraaf, a member of CRED and a professor of psychol?ogy at the University of Amsterdam. Handgraaf, who had already started running a similar experiment in Amsterdam, leaned over and whispered to me: “You’ll notice they’re saying, ‘This has so-and-so effect over so many years’ — that’s analytical. But then often they’re saying, ‘But I feel this way’ — that’s emotional.”

In short, what Handgraaf and Weber were hearing wasn’t a conversation about the best wind turbine but a tussle between the subjects’ analytical and emotional methods of risk assessment. These experiments would be run with 50 different groups in New York, Handgraaf told me, and the conversations would be recorded and scored for data. The data were in the words. They were in how individuals parsed uncertainty and future trade-offs; they were in the phrases they used as they navigated between thinking and feeling; they were in the way the subjects followed a winding path to a consensual decision, soothing worries or explaining technical information to one another or appealing to the group’s more courageous instincts.

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