Last week’s “Green Mind” issue of the New York Times Magazine shows how behavioral science is making an impact on environmental policy and decision-making. In particular, Jon Gertner’s “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” provides a useful summary of how the trendy fields of behavioral economics and ‘decision science’ are being applied to thinking about climate change. Gertner discusses the differences between analytical and emotional responses to risk; how the ordering of options shapes our choices; the ways that “frames” and “nudges” can be used to shape policy debates; and the effects of group dynamics on shaping individual decision-making. (It’s not that hard to get random individuals to cooperate in groups, and individuals in fact find it easier to think about long-term impacts of decisions when they are in face-to-face groups; but the article doesn’t get into how individuals, in a highly individualistic society like ours, can be encouraged to follow up on what they agreed to when they were making decisions in groups.)

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are quoted on their “nudges”. (Sunstein is Obama’s nominated head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs — which tells us that we’ve thankfully moved well away from the Bush administration’s John Poindexter-led Information Awareness Office, with its Total Information Awareness Program — remember that? On the other hand, government “nudging” is just a kinder, gentler form of social engineering; it doesn’t eliminate the need for the broader coalitional politics the green movement needs to remain effective.) Nudges, as Gertner puts it, “structure choices so that our natural cognitive shortcomings don’t make us err” (by which he means make poor decisions, and not just decisions the structurers don’t want us to make). Frames “nudge people by using sophisticated messages, mined from decision-science research, that resonate with particular audiences or that take advantage of our cognitive biases.”

Gertner discusses the issue of a carbon tax versus a cap-and-trade system with a couple of researchers, David Hardisty and Baruch Fischhoff, whose work suggests that a carbon tax could become palatable to Americans (including Republicans) is it were framed as a carbon “offset,” with the added fee going to finance specific types of projects (alternative energy and carbon reduction, etc.). The problem, though, is that, as Gertner puts it,

“The order of the thoughts matters — early thoughts seem to sway our opinion, biasing subsequent thoughts to support the early position. For Republicans in the experiment who considered a carbon tax, their early thoughts were strongly negative [. . .] Yet for the same group, the word “offset” actually changed the way subjects proc­essed their choice. In their thinking, they considered the positive aspects of the offset first — the financing of clean en­ergy — and found the overall evidence positive and acceptable.”

Okay, shhh, let’s not mention a carbon tax anymore. We meant an offset…

This embrace of behavioral research is good news for the burgeoning field of conservation psychology, which is the term that seems to be catching on for what might have been called environmental psychology or ecopsychology but, for various reasons, isn’t. (Environmental psychology has been around for decades and is too broad a term; ecopsychology is too specific, referring usually to a therapeutic and political practice based in biocentric environmentalism.) Susan Clayton’s and Gene Myers’ conservation psychology website is an excellent place to start with this field, and their forthcoming textbook looks like it will be a good primer.

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