In a New York Times Magazine article from April 16, Professor Elke Weber, co-director of the Center for the Decision Sciences, suggests that solving climate change requires more than developing the right technology. It requires changing the way we make decisions. “… Climate change is anthropogenic,” Weber says. “That means it’s caused by human behavior. That’s not to say that engineering solutions aren’t important. But if it’s caused by human behavior, then the solution probably also lies in changing human behavior."

But why aren’t we naturally inclined to curb behavior that promotes global warming? Why, as the title of the article wonders, isn’t the brain green? Jon Gertner, author of the article, explains Weber’s findings:

… Weber’s research seems to help establish that we have a “finite pool of worry,” which means we’re unable to maintain our fear of climate change when a different problem — a plunging stock market, a personal emergency — comes along. We simply move one fear into the worry bin and one fear out. And even if we could remain persistently concerned about a warmer world? Weber described what she calls a “single-action bias.” Prompted by a distressing emotional signal, we buy a more efficient furnace or insulate our attic or vote for a green candidate — a single action that effectively diminishes global warming as a motivating factor. And that leaves us where we started.

Weber’s research illustrates how decision science can be used to influence human behavior — in this case, to make our brains green. Gertner writes:

“… Cooperation is a goal that can be activated,” Weber told me one morning. Her point was that climate change can be easily viewed as a very large “commons dilemma” — a version, that is, of the textbook situation in which sheepherders have little incentive to act alone to preserve the grassy commons and as a result suffer collectively from overgrazing. The best way to avoid such failure is by collaborating more, not less. “We enjoy congregating; we need to know we are part of groups,” Weber said. “It gives us inherent pleasure to do this. And when we are reminded of the fact that we’re part of communities, then the community becomes sort of the decision-making unit. That’s how we make huge sacrifices, like in World War II.”

But does employing decision science in such a manner carry ethical consequences?

“We tend to always wonder,” Weber says: “What’s that person’s true preference? What do they really want? I think that’s the wrong question, because we want it all.”

Photo credit: Xurde