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Neuroeconomics, COVID-19 and Climate Change


Q. What is neuroeconomics and how can this field be applied to advance the climate cause?

Neuroeconomics is a relatively new field, combining behavioral economics, psychology, and neuroscience to study human decision-making.

This gives us a window into the mind, and a better understanding of how we make choices, including those that have environmental impacts. We can deconstruct how that choice process - and the brain regions that we use to decide - might change if we present different information, or change that information’s framing. And we can see if there’s meaningful differences in that process when people have different pro-environmental attitudes, political leanings, financial discount rates, or a whole host of other factors.

Neuroeconomics methods can even be used to forecast the behavior of national or global populations from a small study sample, using brain data.

Ultimately my hope is that neuroeconomics grants us insights into environmental messaging and education efforts that can make pro-environmental behaviors more compelling and easier to engage in.

Q. What can your research, and the field of neuroeconomics, tell us about the differences between the respective responses to Covid-19 and climate change?

Neuroeconomics is perhaps less relevant to drawing the parallels here, but the field of risk perception gives us a lot to work with. When we’re weighing risks, we often have a hard time prioritizing them unless they’re affecting us personally, in the current time and place, and will happen with certainty.

Our ability to easily imagine the consequences plays a great role in how salient risks are as well. Climate change risks end up being hard to prioritize because they’re so diffuse in their impacts: for most people, the really scary climate change outcomes feel like they’ll happen to other people who are geographically and temporally remote from them. And it’s unclear exactly how the negative consequences of climate change will play out, and how directly they’re related to the weather, wildfires, and other natural occurrences that we observe.

Lastly, there’s a huge problem with agency and self-efficacy when we talk about individual behavioral responses to climate change: most of the personal behaviors that impact climate change seem pretty removed in cause-and-effect, and we feel like our own actions are a drop in the bucket.

COVID-19 is still a bit diffuse in terms of personal culpability: it’s difficult to know for certain that a given action you take may spread the illness to others. But the risk is far more salient and immediate. But we had to see the incredibly negative consequences before we started attempting to react appropriately - and even then, we haven’t really acted appropriately.

On the one hand it’s encouraging for climate change response that people have, on the whole, banded together with extreme changes to personal behavior and societal structure in order to protect our most vulnerable. But it’s still a reaction, responding to a major risk to our global society too late because of our difficulty in appropriately mobilizing against these risks that have a delayed fuse and unclear severity.

I think this tells us that when we eventually mobilize on climate change, it will be an impressive effort - but I fear that it will come far too late, reacting to impacts that have completely exceeded our ability to mitigate or adapt to.

Q. Do you see the Covid-19 mobilization—both in the realm of policy and individual behaviour change—as instructive for researchers seeking to better understand climate change-related decision-making? If so, how?

I think there’s a lot to study here because of the major parallels between the two risk cases.

The biggest insights may come from looking at what it takes to encourage different segments of the population to react cautiously and proactively to such a global societal threat.

These are both big commons issues, but I think there’s probably a wide range of reasons why people end up taking precautions. Figuring out whether that’s a sense of ethical responsibility toward the world at large, the local community, your family, or just a sense of self-preservation or even societal peer pressure, may give us some cues about how we should engage people on climate change issues.

Q. The view that emotional content is more motivating than statistical information is gaining currency in the environmental community. In your 2015 Stanford TedX talk, you highlighted the importance of pivoting from statistics-oriented environmental communication toward emotion-centric environmental communication.

What role does emotion play in the different responses to Covid 19 and climate change, respectively?

Emotion’s an incredibly powerful lever. The narrative around COVID-19 has definitely - and justifiably so - leveraged fear in a way that climate change, for most of the population, just can’t yet.

I think there’s also some complexity in the negative emotions we feel around climate change, since there’s a narrative being pushed that individual actions in daily life are majorly feeding those negative impacts (rather than more macro policies and industrial practices), and I think that shame/guilt aspect can actually be very demotivating, causing people to disengage.

The negative emotions are tricky because sticking your head in the sand and avoiding something that causes them is a very natural reaction, and it works until it doesn’t.

Q. How can neuroscience illuminate the way emotion factors into decision-making about climate change?

I think one of the craziest things to come out of neuroeconomics in the last few years is that in a growing number of studies, we can predict behavior at the national or global level using brain data from a relatively small sample of individuals (under 100 people), and they don’t even have to be representative of the larger population: pretty much whoever is around and willing to get their brain scanned.

We’ve seen this work in a range of contexts: from predicting music and movie sales to what gets funded on Kiva and Kickstarter to forecasting how effective an anti-smoking ad campaign is going to be. And in the majority of these studies, this predictive power is coming from the nucleus accumbens: part of the brain’s “reward pathway” that’s strongly linked with positive emotions.

In the studies we’ve been working on recently, this seems to extend to the environmental domain as well. What does this mean? That if you can elicit strong positive emotions, that’s probably going to triumph over a lot of other processing (this is why just giving people more information on climate change is usually pretty ineffective at translating into behavior changes).

What neuroscience is going to do is help us figure out how we get that positive motivating sentiment in response to environmental issues, and what the circumstances are that might turn that sentiment into action.

Q. On the topic of emotion, one of your studies identified that people with higher levels of environmental concern had more activation in the anterior insula (where we register physiological and moral disgust) upon viewing images depicting destruction of natural parkland. This activation was predictive of participants’ willingness to donate to a park preservation fund. Do you see this study as having implications for how we communicate about environmental issues specifically to people with high levels of environmental concern?

What, (if any), relevance do these findings have for how climate change communicators select language and images to promote environmental action among the wider public?

As I mentioned earlier, negative emotions are a tricky thing, and very context-sensitive. The anterior insula is often associated with processing negative emotion, and a lot of people who have heard about or read that study say “so we should tap into negative or fear narratives then?”

But I think there’s a pretty strong nuance in that study: the negative response is to the destructive actions of a third party. They’re not feeling any personal culpability, so that punitive reaction is really powerful. Like in a lot of game theory exercises, they’re effectively getting the opportunity to punish a defector, and have to pay for that privilege - and they do.

And we do see that anterior insula activity in that study is stronger when people have higher levels of environmental concern, so we know that when we get those pro-environmental attitudes in place, they’re not having a totally intellectualized effect on people’s deliberative reasoning - they’re tapping right into the emotions.

Q. In what ways do you take decisions about climate change to be comparable to related but distinct arenas of environmental decision-making, such as conservation of natural spaces? In what ways is it unique?

For most people I think it’s about the level of abstraction. Conservation of a natural space is concrete: you can show people pictures of that place, you generally have some existential threat to it, so you can walk people through what’s going to happen if that place isn’t conserved. It’s tangible.

And oftentimes, the places that people are conserving are either iconic or local. So there’s a connection with that place, and a familiarity, even if it’s only through nature documentaries. That sense of connection can be incredibly powerful. Climate change is going to affect the globe. But we can’t show people everywhere at once, and exactly how the counterfactual - what happens if we don’t act - is going to play out for each of those places.

So with climate change and other global threats, that place connection ends up being weakened by the extra level of reasoning that it takes for people to get from the threat to the solution.

Q. What are some of the most significant population-wide findings from your field that are relevant to how advocates approach climate action? What can climate advocates learn from the way that differences between individuals (such as an individual’s level of environmental concern) inform environmental decision-making?

The biggest neural predictor of population-level behavior tends to be whether you’re evoking positive emotions. It’s not some deliberative, drawn out rationalization. And even for those with high environmental concern, that seems to just ramp up the emotional stakes, rather than shifting them into a more reflective or fact-based approach to conservation. That seems simple, but what’s going to warrant a lot more study is, how do we leverage those emotions appropriately and responsibly? What’s compelling material, and for whom?

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