"We need a critical mass of people to behave in a climate friendly way"

Interview with Max Planck Director Ralph Hertwig on climate protection and how to overcome barriers

September 21, 2021

Scientists have been warning the public about the dangers of climate change for years. Its impact can already be felt throughout Germany. Only decisive and rapid action can at least mitigate the consequences. But what is preventing us from taking urgently needed action? Psychologist Ralph Hertwig, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, explains the reasons and offers suggestions on how we can change our habits.

Exploring the psychology of human decision-making: Ralph Hertwig, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

The floods in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in July 2021 acted as a reminder that Germany is not immune to the dangers posed by global warming. But why is it still so difficult to act decisively?

The reasons are varied. For one thing, when making decisions, we usually value immediate benefits over long-term benefits. This can be a problem when it comes to issues such as climate change, which require long-term investments that may pay off only in future generations. But we live in the here and now and have a strong interest in optimizing our present situation. When striving to achieve the 1.5 or 2 degree target, it probably makes no difference whether I, as an individual, cycle to work instead of driving, recycle my waste, or reduce my meat consumption. But when everyone thinks “I can’t change anything anyway” and acts accordingly, we have a problem. Another important point is that we all have multiple and often conflicting goals. On one hand, we want to reduce our carbon footprint. On the other hand, we want to offer our families a nice home with as much living space as possible. These conflicting goals must be reconciled.

How can we do this?

We could start by reflecting on the reasons for our own behaviour. This could lead to interesting insights and, in turn, motivate changes in behaviour. For example, we still vote even though our individual vote is unlikely to influence the outcome of the election. But we have other good motives to choose from. We may vote because we want to see ourselves as good citizens or because we feel voting is a symbolic act of self-determination. Similarly, we could re-evaluate our consumer behaviour. Our carbon footprint is only one among billions. But we might want to change our behaviour because we want to have a good answer if our children and grandchildren ever ask: “And what did you do to help stop climate change?” Or we want to free ourselves from the constraints of a consumer society. In addition to individual behaviour, we must look at the larger systemic contexts and ask ourselves how the economy and the state control behaviour. In the coronavirus pandemic, the state has mostly acted clearly, unambiguously, and forcefully. This is much less the case with climate change. However, if legislation does not set clear signals for action – for example, in the form of economic incentives or clear and binding requirements for the economy – there is a danger that the responsibility for behavioural change will be offloaded onto the individual. This should not happen.

Can you give examples?

We all know that climate change is closely linked to meat production and that we consume too much meat in Germany. Nevertheless, the legislation does not provide us with a clear incentive to reduce our consumption. For example, by making meat more expensive through taxes or imposing animal-friendly farming methods. We can still buy cheap meat in the supermarket. Another example: we live in a society in which individual transport still plays a large role. Here, too, there could be clearer signals from the legislative side in favour of public transport or cycling. For example, buses and trains could be free of charge, or cycle paths could be massively expanded. Of course, such decisions always involve conflicts of interest. If meat becomes more expensive, this will restrict our diets. If fewer cars are driven, jobs may be lost. Such conflicts have to be negotiated in society and through politics. The individual alone cannot do this. In this sense, guiding principles are important in controlling behaviour.

The federal government has been working with behavioural psychologists for some time. Does this make sense when it comes to climate protection?

There are few major social problems in which human behaviour does not play a central role – be it the coronavirus crisis, old-age poverty, the obesity pandemic, or climate change. It therefore makes sense for governments to make strategic use of good behavioural psychology research.

How can behavioural psychology contribute to making progress on climate protection?

There are several different approaches. One of these involves subtly ‘nudging’ people in the direction of the desired behaviour. This concept is seen more critically in Germany than elsewhere – and rightly so, in my view. However, I find certain aspects of nudging interesting, especially the concept of decision architecture, which directly influences our behaviour. An important component of this decision-making architecture is defaults. You may know them from the debate about organ donation. Should the default be that we automatically consent to organ donation and must actively opt out? Or should the opt-in system be maintained? Similarly, we could work with sustainability defaults. If a person does not actively make a decision, the sustainable option is chosen by default. This would be conceivable when buying cars or electrical appliances that can be personally configured. Here, the government could stipulate that the most energy-saving variant is always specified as the default.

According to surveys, most Germans attach great importance to environmental and climate protection. In everyday life, however, ingrained processes often prevent us from behaving in a more environmentally friendly way. How do we break the habit loop?

I still believe in the power of enlightenment. We can obtain trustworthy information ourselves. And reputable institutions can make it readily available. Obtaining information and understanding contexts can be the first step to breaking fixed habits. How does producing one kilogram of meat affect the climate? And what do one or more meat-free days per week mean for my carbon footprint? After we have decided to change our behaviour, the next step is implementing the new goals. Here, too, behaviour change can be made easier with different strategies and techniques. Just one example: our behaviour is often triggered by low-threshold cues from the environment. Sometimes even small changes in our personal decision-making architecture can help us to autonomously nudge ourselves in the desired direction. I can practice self-nudging. For example, I could “hide” meat products at the back of the fridge and put vegetables in plain view. It is important to realize that we can design our own decision-making architecture and can make it easier for ourselves to achieve our goals with small changes.

In order to achieve the greatest possible effect, the majority of people must succeed in behaving differently. But how does individual behaviour become group behaviour?

Humans are social beings. We take our cue from what others are doing and from what is socially desirable. Without having to talk about it explicitly, social norms change the behaviour of the individual. If hardly anyone around us behaves in an environmentally friendly way, we conclude that indifferent behaviour towards the environment is OK. Everybody does. However, as soon as a critical mass starts to behave differently, this social signal can have a strong impact on everybody. For example, think of the greeting rituals before and during the pandemic. At the beginning of 2020, we shook hands or even kissed each other on the cheeks when greeting each other. We found it odd at first when the first people started to avoid these rituals and develop new ones instead. But individuals became a critical mass. And what at first seemed exotic became the new social norm that now effectively guides our behaviour. Today, nobody is surprised by an outstretched fist or an elbow bump. Once a critical mass of people change their behaviour, this will have a normative effect on the behaviour of many others. These effects can also be harnessed when it comes to climate protection.

Many thanks for this interview!

The questions were asked by Elke Maier.

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