To a psychologist, climate change looks as if it was designed to be ignored.
– "It's natural to behave irrationally," Washington Post
Natural to behave irrationally? Not from the free-market economist's point of view. Climate change is just one more policy problem designed for the market to suss out as it efficiently collects information about the decisions of rational humans acting in their own best interest.
However, the WaPo article describes how behavioral psychology provides insight into reasons why humans may not pay attention to — and take action on — climate change. The barriers include:
- psychological distance — sense that this is a problem for somebody else or some other time
- complexity — the mechanics aren't easy to understand, and skeptics question the evidence
- system justification — we favor and defend the status quo
- finite pool of worry — we can only handle so many problems at once
Given the barriers, how to address climate change before it's too late?
Appeals to save energy based on helping the environment, being socially responsible or saving money appear to be less effective than saying the majority of your neighbors are doing it, according to the article.
This reminded me of similar finding (which I couldn't locate) related to tax compliance. Filers were most likely to declare all their income and not claim false deductions if they heard most people did not cheat on their returns. The "almost everyone's honest" approach worked better than telling filers about penalties, their duty as citizens or the good uses to which taxes are put.*****
Looking for the tax study citation, I did come across this nugget about the "net misreporting rate" (of underreported income and inflated deductions):
[T]axpayers whose true income was between $500,000 and $1 million a year understated their adjusted gross incomes by 21% overall in 2001, compared to an 8% underreporting rate for those earning $50,000 to $100,000 and even lower rates for those earning less. [...]
In all, because of their higher noncompliance rates, those with true incomes of $200,000 or more received 25% of all income, but accounted for 40% of net underreported income and 42% of underreported tax in 2001, the new analysis finds.
In other words, all our assumptions about the wealthy paying a smaller proportion of their incomes in taxes may be conservative if they are misstating their income and deductions.
Here's another study (abstract only) that appears to suggest people who are trained in economics may view tax compliance differently than those who are trained to view the world behaviorally.
Italian psychology and economics students took part in a tax compliance study that showed participants declared more income as purported detection rates rose and when tax was framed as a gain. Psychologists declared less on their returns when they were instructed to maximize (keep more) income, while economists declared the least regardless of how they were instructed.
If you're interested in this topic of how framing and default values influence choices, you might look at the TRAITS model put forward by Jay Hamilton and Scott de Marchi, or "libertarian paternalism" and "choice architecture" as explored in the book Nudge and other writing by Cass Sunstein:
What libertarian paternalists add is that the opposition between "individual choice" and "government" is confusing and unhelpful when government is inevitably establishing default rules that govern outcomes if choices haven't been specifically made -- and that influence people's choices in any case. A key point, then, is that private and public institutions can't possibly avoid a form of paternalism, so long as they establish default rules and starting points. (For some reason, economists in particular seem not to understand this point.) The question is how to make those starting points as good as possible, while also preserving free choice.